Low-carbon aluminium is central to combating climate change
Aluminium is ever present in our lives. It lives in the gadgets we use to stay in touch, the packaging we handle, the cars we drive and our lives are, undoubtedly, enriched by its use. However, the only time we give it a moment’s thought is when we’re recycling it, which leads to a public perception that in a world of waste and pollution, it’s one of the good guys.
However, when it comes to the environment, the truth is that aluminium has a split personality. It’s one of the world’s most sustainable metals because of its entirely recyclable properties and its lightweight profile means it has a significant impact when it comes to the carbon footprint of certain types of manufacturing.
But the metal also goes by another name – solid electricity – because of the huge amounts of power required to electrolyse alumina powder and transform it into the metal. Alarmingly, almost 80 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the aluminium industry globally can be traced back to smelting and it’s this energy-intensive process that has limited the metal’s carbon-free credentials.
Now Russia-based RUSAL, part of En+ Group, one of the world’s major aluminium producers, is on a mission to make the production of the metal more sustainable.
RUSAL has given this aluminium a name: ALLOW. Every shipment comes with an independently verified carbon-footprint statement from its smelter of origin, which means customers can guarantee the product contains less than 4t CO2 per tonne of aluminium, which is four to five times lower than the CO2 footprint of aluminium produced from a coal-based smelter (scope 1 and 2 only).
To do this RUSAL are capitalising on the geography of their smelters to craft their aluminium from renewable hydropower from Siberian rivers, rather than fossil-fuelled power stations, drastically reducing the environmental footprint of the metal and making the company the largest producer of low-carbon aluminium in the world.
“Aluminium is only as ‘green’ as the power source used to make it,” says Mark Hansen, chief executive of Metals trader Concord Resources Ltd. “Aluminium smelters are expensive, huge pieces of industrial infrastructure. There has not been a new one built in the West in many years. However, some were designed to use hydro and the commodities industry is moving in the direction of more transparency on sources of supply and analysing those chains. We have recently begun a carbon tracking initiative to monitor the sourcing so that end customers can understand where their products come from and how they touch different carbon sources.”
RUSAL operate six smelters throughout Siberia that are all powered by localised hydropower plants.
“Hydropower is the energy source for over 90 per cent of all of RUSAL’s operations,” says Evgenii Nikitin, RUSAL’s chief executive. “RUSAL’s longer-term goal is to reach 95 per cent of carbon-free power in the company’s energy mix by 2025, and focus our efforts on perfecting the lowest carbon aluminium possible through enhancing new top-notch technologies and developing our proper technological solutions.”
In general, demand for aluminium is expected to rise by around 4 per cent a year over the next five years. It’s even higher in the motor industry, where the annual growth forecast is 10 to 20 per cent as car manufacturers place increasing importance on lightweight vehicles to reduce emissions and so are switching from denser steel to aluminium.
RUSAL has looked at the impact of ALLOW in the context of car manufacturing and found it can make a significant contribution to climate-conscious motoring when it’s used in body parts.
RUSAL’s Driving Better Material Choices for Automobiles whitepaper found that low-CO2 aluminium can offset CO2 production inputs in less than one year of driving.
This is particularly relevant as, according to an industry study, the average aluminium content in a car will reach 200kg by 2028, up from 130kg currently, and commitments are being made by industry heavyweights such as Daimler, which is repurposing its raw-material supply chain towards sustainability.
Of course, it’s not just the automotive industry that can take advantage of the low-carbon aluminium revolution as electronics and packaging industries can also benefit. Food and beverage industries will be able to reduce the carbon footprint of their products by making cans, bottles and other packaging materials from it.
Companies, such as Danish brewer Carlsberg, are setting themselves ambitious carbon-neutral goals in the years ahead and, with packaging accounting for 40 per cent of the company’s total carbon footprint, they realise that reducing the environmental impact of the aluminium they use must become a priority.
Tech firms too will be able to satisfy the growing consumer need to know the product they are buying is in keeping with efforts to leave as low a carbon footprint behind as possible. Whether it’s a flatscreen TV or wearable tech, products will come with in-built recyclability once obsolete.
Finally, the benefits of low-carbon aluminium could be game-changing for the construction industry, where sustainability is set to become a core element of policy for decades to come.
“Energy consumed in buildings accounts for 50 per cent of city emissions on average, and as much as 75 per cent for many cities worldwide,” says Cécile Faraud, Clean Construction Programme Manager at C40, the sustainability-focussed network made up of the world’s megacities.
So the materials we use to house an exploding urban population will have a dramatic effect on a city’s future sustainability, whether it’s municipal buildings, private-sector corporate office space or private housing and using low-carbon aluminium in these buildings guarantees investments made today can have a climate impact in the future.
To meet the coming climate challenges, it’s big players such as RUSAL that are instigating a collective vision beyond their own company borders, which is why RUSAL’s commitment to a greener future doesn’t end with its own hydropowered smelters.
The company is also a signatory of the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), a non-governmental industry organisation of 55 members, including other industry leaders, national aluminium councils, technology companies, as well as aluminium-intensive firms across all major industries.
One of the goals of ASI is to verify sustainable aluminium production in the same way as sustainably harvested timber or organic food, and work to ensure the production and use of environmentally friendly aluminium as a global climate solution is backed up by full transparency across its entire lifespan.
With sustainability set to become the cornerstone of global industrial policy for decades to come, RUSAL is positioning itself as one of the leading players in the mission to turn aluminium from a contributor to the climate-change problem into part of the solution.
For more information please visit allow.rusal.com