New study: China's per-capita in-use copper stock has increased by factor eight since 1990

China's booming economy is also reflected in the growing demand for important raw materials. A new model developed by a German-Chinese research team led by Fraunhofer ISI calculates the effects of this development on copper flows in China. The findings are published in a new article.

China's rapid rise to being the most important manufacturing center worldwide is also reflected by its use of raw materials such as copper. In the context of a worldwide growing demand, a systematic understanding of copper stocks and flows is becoming increasingly important. But no systematic attempt has been made until today to connect the Chinese copper cycle to the economy so as to identify the ultimate sectoral drivers of copper demand.

In order to address this gap, a study has been realized by a German-Chinese research team lead by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI with contributions from the Institute of Mineral and Waste Processing, Waste Disposal and Geomechanics (University of Clausthal), the School of Environmental Science and Engineering (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) and the College of Economics and Management (Nanjing Forestry University). The results of the study were published in the Journal of Cleaner Production under the title “The Chinese Copper Cycle: Tracing Copper through the Economy with Dynamic Substance Flow and Input-Output Analysis“.

The researchers conducted a substance flow analysis to systematically assess the flows and stocks of copper in China between 1990 and 2015 and combined it with an input-output analysis so that the copper flows can be portrayed in relation to the wider Chinese economic system. Dr.-Ing. Luis Tercero Espinoza, co-author of the publication and coordinator of the research topic “Materials and Raw Materials“ at Fraunhofer ISI, describes what distinguishes the study from previous work: “Our dynamic flow analysis of the Chinese copper cycle is also based on highly disaggregated industry and trade data, capturing the entire value chain from mining to recycling including all relevant imports and exports. This allows for a much greater level of detail in the portrayal of copper stocks and flows in China, especially with regard to end-use products and scrap.“

The results of the study show that China's per-capita in-use copper stock has grown from about 7 kg in 1990 to close to 60 kg in 2015. At the same time, total copper imports have increased from approximately 0.65 Mt per year to close to 10 Mt. Matthias Pfaff, who also researches on the topic of raw materials at Fraunhofer ISI, explains a peculiarity of the Chinese copper cycle: “A large fraction – around 1,4 Mt – of the Chinese copper imports are made up of scrap and a smaller amount is exported in the form of intermediate goods and not due to exports of final consumption and investment goods. This suggests that most of China's rise as a global supplier has been due to exports of components, which undergo final assembly elsewhere.“

An additional input-output analysis identified ultimate drivers of the Chinese copper demand: Besides the copper needed for the construction sector and for electric equipment, non-material services such as healthcare, induce considerable copper demand. To meet the need of copper in the future, secondary copper from locally-sourced old scrap and a more efficient recycling exceeding today's End-of-Life recycling rate of around 55%, can play an important role in China's future raw material supply.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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