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Decarbonising aluminium will require a united front

Climate change

Decarbonising aluminium will require a united front

The world’s largest industrial polluters must transform the way they do business

Aluminium is a key enabler on the path towards a more sustainable economy and a post-Covid ‘green’ recovery © Reuters

This week En+ Group pledged to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 with a reduction of at least 35 per cent by 2030, the most demanding near-term target yet set by any global aluminium company.

True, as governments everywhere start to focus on the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow this November, an increasing number of the world’s biggest companies are committing to net zero and that is terrific news. But so far, many of the greatest commitments have come from the smaller emitters, retail and service businesses, in particular.

This is not enough. Every business must play its part and every reduction in greenhouse gases is welcome, but to meet the challenge head on, we need the world’s largest industrial polluters to fundamentally transform the way they do business.

These are the seven most energy intensive industries — cement, steel, plastics, aviation, shipping, transport and aluminium — which the UN has deemed to be the most challenging for emissions reductions, the “hard to abate”.

For our industry, there is an inherent contradiction. Aluminium is a metal of the future. Light yet durable and almost infinitely recyclable, aluminium is a key enabler on the path towards a more sustainable economy and a post-Covid ‘green’ recovery.

Its use reduces carbon footprint across a number of key sectors, such as electric vehicles, sustainable packaging, building and construction, aerospace and others. Yet the carbon footprint of aluminium production can be a major issue, largely as a result of energy-intensive smelter emissions.

EN+ tends to beat most other aluminium producers on emissions, thanks to our huge supply of clean electricity from hydropower (rather than a coal-fired supply): our smelter emissions are 2.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per tonne of aluminium. The world average for the same scope is around 12.5 tonnes and from a typical Chinese coal-fired smelter, as much as 16 tonnes.

We will follow a science-based pathway designed to align with the vision set out by the Paris Agreement and the green deals emerging from governments around the world.

But meeting our new GHG reduction targets for ourselves will not be easy as they cover absolute emissions across all of our operations, including alumina production plus heat and electricity production.

We have already picked the low-hanging fruit. The entire aluminium industry needs a decarbonisation strategy that is both broad and deep. Our own internally developed inert anode technology used in aluminium smelting is a breakthrough climate change-beating technology. Already in production trials, it can turn what is a huge C02 emitting industrial process to one that emits zero emissions. Nevertheless, even this pioneering science will not be enough on its own. 

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The sector needs to collaborate with the logistics and shipping industries, responsible for sending the metal in all its forms, right around the world. Improving the recovery and recycling of aluminium scrap could also reduce the need for primary material by 15 per cent, saving roughly the same emissions per year as all of Spain.

Small-scale use of carbon capture could also play an important role and, for the last-mile industrial activity that proves impossible to mitigate within the boundaries of current scientific knowhow, nature-based solutions offer huge potential.

Few of these innovations in infrastructure or technology can be achieved by one business alone, but require a united front — within the industry, with other sectors and with global policymakers. 

If the past year has taught us anything, it is not to underestimate our amazing potential for rapid scientific advancement when we have a clear mission and strong incentives for collaboration. 

Our announcement is just one part of the journey — a statement of intent aimed at sparking collective efforts and catalysing innovation. Because, however ambitious, net zero from the leaders in our sector will not be enough if decarbonisation stalls across the industry as a whole.

Lord Barker of Battle is the executive chairman of En+ Group and a former UK energy minister

The Commodities Note is an online commentary on the industry from the Financial Times

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