Aluminium production is an energy intensive operation. It uses coal-fired power or natural gas. According to the International Aluminium Institute, the aluminium sector emits into the atmosphere approximately 1100 million tonnes of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) globally. These emissions accelerate global warming and climate change. The aluminium production process is considered a ‘hard to abate’ sector, one where the costs of cutting emissions are high while the progress to reducing emissions is often slow.

Road to Greener Aluminium

According to the London Metal Exchange, “Aluminium is pivotal to the sustainable transition due to its use in light-weighting and its recyclability.” And the Green Aluminium initiative is the industry’s attempt to decarbonise the production of aluminium.

En+ Group, an Anglo-Russian energy and metals company, is a leader in low-carbon production and renewables. It is the parent company of Rusal, a Russian company, which is the largest producer of aluminium outside China. The group is committed to converting the aluminium industry into a greener sector. The company is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

As one of the largest producers of low-carbon aluminium and independent hydropower, on 1 July 2020, En+ Group published the ‘Green Aluminium Vision’. The vision enlists 9 key initiatives that aim to create a distinct asset class of ‘Green Aluminium’. This class of asset will consist of low-carbon aluminium and recycled aluminium. The objective of this initiative is to achieve the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

Another interesting development is what Canadian company ELYSIS is doing – using cutting-edge technology for the aluminium smelting industry. What makes ELYSIS a major player is not only its promise, but the fact that it is a joint venture between two of the world’s leading aluminium industry pioneers.

Announced on 10 May 2018, ELYSIS is a collaboration between Alcoa and Rio Tinto. This alliance was facilitated by Apple, that invested $13 million (CAD) and has also agreed to provide technical support.

Alcoa President and CEO Roy Harvey said, “This discovery has been long sought in the aluminium industry, and this announcement is the culmination of the work from many dedicated Alcoa employees. Today, our history of innovation continues as we take aluminium’s sustainable advantage to a new level with the potential to improve the carbon footprint of a range of products from cars to consumer electronics.”

ELYSIS received a combined investment of $188 million (CAD) from Alcoa, Rio Tinto, the Government of Canada, the Government of Quebec and Apple. At its Québec facility, ELYSIS is working on the “commercialisation of the world’s first zero-carbon aluminium smelting technology.”

Their technology replaces the substantial emission of carbon dioxide and other long-lasting greenhouse gases. ELYSIS says that this upgrade in technology, even if adopted only in Canada, has the potential of reducing 7 million metric tonnes of annual GHG emissions. (To put this into perspective, the technology would be equivalent to removing 1.8 million cars from the road).

“This is a revolutionary smelting process that can deliver a significant reduction in carbon emissions. It builds on the key role aluminium has to play in driving human progress, by making products infinitely recyclable, stronger, lighter and more fuel efficient” explained J-S Jacques, Rio Tinto’s chief executive.

While Green Aluminium has drawn attention from several industry players, the London Metal Exchange (LME) is leading the conversation. The LME has announced an indigenous labelling programme, ‘LMEpassport’. This will enable companies to voluntarily input carbon-related metric data for specific batches of aluminium.

In addition, the LME plans to launch a new spot trading platform to provide price discovery and trading of sustainably sourced metal – once again starting with low carbon aluminium.

Georgina Hallett, LME Chief Sustainability Officer, commented: “We recognise that a lot of valuable work has already been done by individual companies, industry associations, standards bodies and NGOs, and – as with our responsible sourcing initiative – we believe it’s vital to work collaboratively to further enable that work.”

LME’s innovative ideas have received some pushback from a few companies. According to media reports, a few companies have refused to adopt LME’s proposal to allow aluminium with a low-carbon footprint to be traded separately from the standard.

Clearly the road to greener aluminium won’t be a as straightforward as many would have hoped, but all the major players in the industry are looking in the right direction.

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