Aluminium: A Sustainable Metal for a Sustainable World
by Pernelle Nunez, Deputy Secretary General and Director of Sustainability, International Aluminium Institute
Sustainability has risen steadily up the business agenda in recent years and for many companies, it is now a major strategic objective. For the aluminium sector, it is no different, and, perhaps in many ways, has an even greater influence on the future of the sector with aluminium being a key material in solutions for a sustainable world. Aluminium is a material valued in a number of growing end-use sectors including transportation, electrical infrastructure and packaging. Future green policies provide significant opportunities for aluminium to be a material of choice but to realise these opportunities, it is essential that the aluminium sector demonstrates its sustainability.
Seeking opportunities and collaboration to enhance sustainable practices of the aluminium sector, the International Aluminium Institute has joined the World Climate Foundation as a Principal Partner of World Climate Summit 2022. IAI will hold a Workshop on the ‘Roadmap for a Hard-to-Abate Sector: The Case for Aluminium’ on 13th November in Sharm el Sheikh. The hosts of the Workshop, Miles Prosser - IAI Secretary General and Marlen Bertram – Director, Scenarios & Forecasts, will explore the various collaborative initiatives supporting decarbonisation across the industry with a focus on actions to accelerate progress, key levers and how different stakeholders play a crucial role in delivering a sustainable metal.
The International Aluminium Institute (IAI), the only body representing the global aluminium industry, has a long history of bringing the sector together on issues of common interest. Sustainability is a key area where its members collaborate to share good practices and whilst climate change is by no means the only sustainability issue facing the sector - it is recognised as one of the most pressing.
In 2021, the IAI set out Greenhouse Gas Pathways (GHG) for the Aluminium Sector to 2050 aligned with global climate goals. Building on its 50-year history as the go-to organisation for open-access industry data and analyses, the IAI adopted a data-driven approach, bringing together its long-standing life cycle and material flow modelling work to develop the first comprehensive aluminium sector GHG Pathways for the industry and other stakeholders.
A credible plan for a hard-to-abate sector
‘Hard-to-abate’ is a term often used to describe industries that are particularly energy-intensive through their use of heat and electricity, and where the cost of introducing less carbon-intensive technologies is prohibitively high. The aluminium sector is frequently labelled as such along with other industrial sectors such as steel, cement and transportation.
The GHG Pathways for the Aluminium Sector seeks to address some of the challenges of being ‘hard-to-abate,’ by:
Establishing the current baseline of emissions;
Looking at different scenarios to achieve the deep reductions needed across the sector to meet the objectives of the Paris agreement; and
Proposing pathways, potential technologies, or changes in operations to reduce the most significant emissions from the sector.
The aluminium sector currently emits approximately 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2e – about 2% of total global annual GHG emissions. The average emissions intensity of a primary aluminium ingot is about 16t CO2e/t Al while gate-to-gate emissions for recycled aluminium are significantly less carbon-intensive, at 0.6 t CO2e/t Al.
Three scenarios to 2050 were developed for the sector to better understand the potential emissions trajectories over the coming decades (Figure 1):
Business-As-Usual (BAU) – assuming minimal changes from current operating practices and additional primary aluminium capacity being ramped up to meet growing demand for aluminium to 2050.
Beyond 2 Degrees (B2DS) – aligned with International Energy Agency’s Beyond 2 Degrees Analysis from which a sector budget was calculated for the full aluminium sector scope.
1.5 Degrees Scenario (1.5DS) – broadly aligned with International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Analysis from which a sector budget was calculated for the full aluminium sector scope.
Under these scenarios, total sector emissions in 2050 varied significantly from about 1.6 billion tonnes CO2e under the Business-As-Usual scenario to about fifty million tonnes under the 1.5 Degrees Scenario.
Necessity is the mother of invention
To achieve such deep reductions and alignment with the B2DS or 1.5DS - significant changes in the industry’s current operations need to be implemented at scale and at pace. Three GHG Pathways have been identified by the aluminium sector to highlight potential technologies that address:
Electricity related emissions
Direct and thermal energy related emissions
Circularity and resource efficiency
In some instances, improved efficiency or increased integration of existing technologies e.g., variable renewable energy or nuclear energy, could contribute to significant reductions in emissions. In other instances, there is a need for a technological step-change to make progress. This includes the commercialisation and roll-out of novel technologies (such as the inert anode) or technologies never-before-used in aluminium production processes such as hydrogen, CCUS or mechanical vapour recompression. With growing urgency to address GHG emissions, there is increased activity across the sector from research and development to pilot-scale testing and collaborative initiatives – and more will be needed to bring these crucial technologies to industrial scale as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Aluminium producers are taking decisive action to implement technologies that will lower emissions. There have been numerous investments from companies across all producing regions on projects seeking to reduce emissions as rapidly as possible. There are many initiatives aligned with the three IAI GHG Pathways that are being implemented across the sector (Figure 2). - from the scale-up and testing of inert anodes to increasing zero-carbon electricity from solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower sources, and to increasing recycling capacity.
Closer collaboration has also been an effective way of progressing action both across the supply chain and with other actors. There have been many initiatives at the technology R&D level which build confidence and capacity in new technologies enabling progress (e.g., Elysis, Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) partnerships, UAE Hydrogen Leadership Initiative). This model of industrial partners working alongside research institutes or customers with co-funding from public and private sources is likely to become increasingly prevalent as corporate and national climate change strategies align.
Sustainable aluminium for sustainable solutions
Climate action has been a priority for the aluminium industry for many years but a broader conversation around sustainability and sustainable aluminium has evolved more recently. Decarbonisation of the aluminium sector is an integral step to producing sustainable aluminium but it cannot happen at any cost - climate change plans and technologies must be part of a broader sustainability plan that considers impacts not only on the environment but on people too. It is too simplistic for the industry to accept that low-carbon aluminium is sustainable aluminium and to address this, the industry is already demonstrating its commitment to addressing other key sustainability challenges such as biodiversity, water management, waste management and social impacts in parallel with efforts on climate action.
There are significant opportunities for aluminium to be a material of choice in societies that are aiming to become more sustainable. Aluminium has strong sustainability credentials: it is infinitely recyclable, lightweight, conductive and strong. It is produced by an industry that is actively reducing its emissions, has a clear plan to meet global climate goals along with a commitment to transparent and data-driven approaches which are being increasingly demanded by stakeholders. Aluminium is an essential material for sustainable solutions and to ensure this continues, the aluminium industry is committed to delivering a sustainable metal.
 Mine to casthouse – Life Cycle GWP estimate
Established in 1972, the International Aluminium Institute (IAI) is the only body representing the global primary aluminium industry. IAI member companies are engaged in the production of bauxite, alumina, aluminium, the recycling of aluminium, or fabrication of aluminium or as joint venture partners in such. The Institute also works closely with national and regional aluminium associations with whom it shares many members. Through the IAI, the aluminium industry aims to promote a better understanding of its activities and demonstrate its responsibility in producing the metal and benefits through its use in sustainable applications and recycling.
Learn more: international-aluminium.org
About the author
Pernelle Nunez is the Deputy Secretary General and Director of Sustainability at the International Aluminium Institute. She is responsible for the Institute’s broad sustainability work program and has worked on a range of collaborative industry projects including; life cycle impact assessment, environmental footprint analyses, sustainable waste management and GHG emissions accounting. Pernelle was a Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2019 Methodology Report Update to the 2006 National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Guidelines. She is also active in the IAI’s work on bauxite mining which encompasses issues such as biodiversity and community engagement. Pernelle holds an MSci Geology (Hons) from the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College London and a Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Value Chains from the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership.