Robert Friedland: ‘World economy can’t change unless we develop a lot more mines’

Ivanhoe Mines executive chairman Robert Friedland in action at the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba on May 11. (Credit: Henry Lazenby).

Global mining personality and financier Robert Friedland has singled out Africa and the Arabian Shield as the venues where the world’s future-facing minerals and metals will be responsibly produced.

“This is where humanity is going to make it or break it,” he told the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba currently underway in Cape Town, South Africa.

He points out that the large copper mines in Latin America are aging and declining in grade, requiring increasing amounts of fossil-fuel-derived energy to process ever-increasing tonnages to keep up with historical production.

“They’re very low grade, and they produce a lot of global warming gas. They have a lot of work to do to make them green. It’s Africa where you have a young population where you have the possibility for introducing sustainable development,” he said during one of his usual ‘shock and awe’ bravado presentations.

According to Friedland, humanity has mined about 700 million tonnes of copper to date. The problem is the need to mine that same amount in the next 22 years to keep up with the deepening green energy transition.

“If we’re going to change and stop burning coal and stop burning oil, we can’t put Africa into poverty. We must maintain economic growth,” he said. “How do we have an energy transformation and not plunge the world into chaos?” he asked.

In terms of carbon dioxide emissions in the last 250 years, Europe generated 531 billion tonnes of carbon emissions, and the United States alone produced 416 billion tonnes of carbon emissions.

“That’s how London got built. That’s how Germany got built. That’s how New York got built; Los Angeles,” Friedland pointed out.

The relatively late bloomer China is catching up, creating 235 billion tonnes of emissions.

But in comparison, Africa has produced only about 47 billion tonnes. “Africa has produced almost no global warming, yet it has a total population larger than China’s. So, how do we get to a world without all that air pollution and with clean air while still being fair to the Africans? It’s a huge question,” he said.

Related: Africa’s accelerated energy transition should leave no-one behind 

The crux of the issue, in his view, is the urgent global need to reduce air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, air quality is the single most significant risk to health. Urbanization exacerbates this trend.

For this reason, the energy revolution is accelerating at an unprecedented cadence.

For example, Saudi Arabia wants to reduce their mineral imports and derive 50% of its energy from renewable energy. “When you look at renewable energy and want to reduce dependence on hydrocarbon, you need the mining industry. There’s just no escaping it,” he said.

The ‘electric-everything’ era

Friedland points out that the problem is that renewable technologies are “incredibly” energy and metals-intensive.

“We’re going to have a freakout as we try to change the world economy unless we develop a lot more mines,” said Friedland.

Solar and wind energy require between seven and 37 times more copper per unit of electrical energy produced than simply burning oil or having a nuclear power plant.

“The new giant windmills as tall as the Eiffel Tower – these are the next generation ones – they’re 12 megawatts each. That’s a lot of power per windmill. In the US, we will need 5.5 million tonnes of copper just in the next few years to put up these big General Electric windmills. Where is this copper going to come from?” he said.

Friedland continued to sketch a dire scenario where mining cannot keep up with the demands of the energy revolution.

Related: ‘Miner’s revenge’ is coming with electric cars, Friedland says

By 2030, 20 million EV charging points will need 250% more copper. By 2040 passenger EVs will require 3.7 million tonnes more copper per year. In contrast, internal combustion engine-driven vehicles need only about 1 million tonnes of incremental copper.

“We need eight new Kamoa-Kakula mines to supply the expected 9 million tonne copper supply gap by 2030,” he said.

At the world’s largest copper mine, Escondida, grades are falling. Its energy needs increased 16-fold to produce the same amount of copper. Meanwhile, social upheaval in South America against climate change and mining is ironically impeding their potential role in the emerging green economy.

Wood Mackenzie in 2021 said the world needs to invest $240 billion over the next five years to meet growing demand. “That’s a pretty big number. We put about $2.5 billion into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We’re probably halfway through our current expansion of about $5 to $6 billion of capital investment required. And this is the best development project on a planetary scale,” he said.

According to Friedland’s data, a single 1,000-pound electric vehicle battery requires 500,000 pounds of raw material. “So, to transition just the world’s passenger cars to electric, we have to mine more materials in the next 30 years that we mined throughout human history,” he said.

“Tesla expects a global battery minerals shortage. Maybe, therefore, Elon Musk was selling a few shares. He’s blaming it on a Twitter poll; remember that. But perhaps he realizes there won’t be enough metals around to satisfy these ambitious growths charts,” said Friedland.

And now Mercedes has come out with a 1,000 kilometres-range vehicle on a single charge. “Shouldn’t everybody in Africa have a car like that? Why not? But how do we get there from here? We must change the way we generate electrical energy. We have to change the way we transmit electrical energy, changing the way the whole supply chain is driven. We need orders of magnitude more responsible mining to achieve this,” said Friedland.

‘Hydrogen century’

With that, Friedland heralded the advent of the “hydrogen century” for South Africa.

He noted South Africa is home to the most significant platinum-palladium assets globally. No one has figured out how to use the most common element in the universe, hydrogen, without platinum.

“The hydrogen economy is opening soon at a theatre near you,” he said.

Friedland pointed to examples of the hydrogen economy already taking off.

Airbus is testing a hydrogen-powered engine on an Airbus 380 Jumbo. “The only thing coming out of those engines is water, water vapour. But you can’t do it without platinum metal. And the British want to convert every train to hydrogen fuel cells, eliminating all diesel engines on the trains,” he said.

According to Friedland, the hydrogen fuel cell technology entirely depends on South African platinum. “We’re not going to buy it from the Russian Tsar. He’s killing people with his cash flow. Until he stops that kind of behaviour, we will not buy his platinum. Certainly not in Europe, not in the United States and certainly not in civilized countries who think about the moral imperative of the supply chain,” he said.

Friedland is co-chairman of Ivanhoe Mines, a Canadian mining company with three main joint-venture projects in Southern Africa able to service emerging green technological sectors. It is developing several significant new, mechanized, underground mines at the Kamoa-Kakula copper discoveries in the DRC, and the Platreef palladium-rhodium-platinum-nickel-copper-gold discovery in South Africa; and the extensive redevelopment and upgrading of the historic Kipushi zinc-copper-germanium-silver mine, also in the DRC.

Kamoa-Kakula began producing copper concentrates in May 2021 and, through phased expansions, is positioned to become one of the world’s largest copper producers. Kamoa-Kakula and Kipushi will be powered by clean, renewable hydro-generated electricity and will be among the world’s lowest greenhouse gas emitters per unit of metal produced.

Ivanhoe has pledged to achieve net-zero operational greenhouse gas emissions (Scope 1 and 2) at the Kamoa-Kakula copper mine when large-scale electric, hydrogen and hybrid underground mining equipment become commercially available.

Ivanhoe also is exploring for new copper discoveries on its Western Foreland exploration licences in the DRC, near the Kamoa-Kakula project, where it has been reporting even higher-grade mineralization.