Practical steps to decarbonize aluminium for a leaner, greener industry
Aluminium is often viewed as a sustainable material due to its nearly infinite recyclability. But looks can be deceiving. Aluminium is highly carbon-intensive to produce and, as the second-most used metal in the world by mass, still a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Consider this: the aluminium industry currently emits around 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year, which accounts for about 2 percent of global anthropogenic GHG emissions.¹ By 2050, aluminium demand is expected to grow by more than 50 percent to 298 megatonnes (Mt).² Aluminium’s contribution to GHG emissions will only increase proportionately unless the industry adopts stronger measures to decarbonize the process.
There is a small window of opportunity for the aluminium industry to emerge as a true sustainable leader amongst competitor materials and maintain its position as a critical material for economic development.
Pathways to a greener industry
Accenture and the World Economic Forum have been working together in an ongoing effort to address issues facing the mining and metals industry. In our recently published paper, ‘Aluminium for Climate: Exploring Pathways to Decarbonize the Aluminium Industry’, we suggest three pathways the aluminium sector can take to significantly reduce emissions.
- Decarbonize the power supply
Electricity consumption accounts for over 60 percent of the aluminium industry’s carbon footprint.³ Transitioning to renewable energy sources or leveraging technologies for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) can reduce this carbon source substantially. Onshore solar and wind are now highly cost competitive when deployed on or near-site in diverse countries globally, particularly in comparison to coal.
- Decarbonize process emissions
Direct emissions from the processing of aluminium account for 25–30 percent of sectoral emissions.4 Companies can significantly reduce process emissions by using non-fossil fuel technologies for heat and steam, or by developing an inert (non-carbon) anode. The aluminium industry can look towards advancing inert anode technology to realize financial and environmental benefits.
- Increase scrap recovery
Recycled aluminium uses just 5 percent of the energy required to produce primary aluminium. Simply increasing collection and recovery of post-consumer scrap could reduce the need for carbon-intensive primary aluminium by up to 15 percent.5 Efforts to increase scrap recovery should focus on diverting aluminium from landfills, improving separation techniques, designing easily-separated products, and collaborating along the value chain.
The question now is, how can aluminium players traverse these pathways to achieve sufficient emission reductions to have meaningful impact on climate?
Actionable steps toward decarbonization
Accomplishing substantial decarbonization along the pathways described above means looking beyond just implementing innovative technologies. It also requires transformation from the core and embracing new ways to reliably monitor, report, and deliver on sustainability commitments
Our assessment is that aluminium players should take these three priority actions:
Build a strong digital foundation
Employees should have access to meaningful real-time operational, energy and environmental information with which to make impactful data-driven decisions (e.g. around the use, export to the grid, or storage of renewable power). This requires a strong technology backbone including sensors, cloud data storage, and user-centered applications to view and analyze multiple information sources. Accenture’s Connected Mine solution is one example of an analytics platform that can use existing data sets to produce real-time operational feedback. Expanding such tools to incorporate sustainability metrics, and applying advanced analytics techniques such as machine learning, will enable employees to better optimize for production efficiency and environmental impact.
Empower the workforce
As low-carbon technologies are introduced, aluminium players’ operational processes are likely to change. Companies will need to plan for evolving roles, responsibilities, and business processes that accommodate new technologies and reporting requirements. Taking early action to prepare and reskill the workforce will help employees feel engaged in this transformation. Enabling employees in key roles to collaborate with players across the industry, including competitors, can help accelerate R&D efforts. One example of this collaboration in action is the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a CEO-led consortium that is investing in accelerating technologies such as CCUS.
Organize around a purpose
As companies make increasingly ambitious commitments, it is more important than ever that organizations put ‘purpose’ at the forefront. Leadership needs to define clear targets for the short- and long-term that align with a trajectory towards net zero. Leaders should be looking at science-based targets to set their decarbonization goals, aiming for a minimum of net zero by 2050. Then, most importantly, leaders need to communicate what decarbonization will mean to the company’s employees, stakeholders and investors, where it positions the company in the aluminium industry, and how it contributes to long-term competitiveness in the emerging green economy.
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Aluminium’s contribution to GHG emissions will only increase proportionately unless the industry adopts stronger measures to decarbonize the process.
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Realizing the vision of a green economy
Accelerating decarbonization through these actions will deliver additional benefits to aluminium players by improving overall process efficiency to boost productivity, driving better decision making and ensuring worker health and safety.
By committing to specific targets and taking action in the areas we’ve highlighted, aluminium companies can realize the vision of a more sustainable future and lead the industry on our collective journey to a green economy.
We would also like to thank Renee Van Heusden and Jorgen Sandstrom for their contributions and to Renee for leading the Aluminium for Climate efforts from World Economic Forum.
1 IAI, GHG Emissions Data for Aluminium Sector, 21 July 2020 (updated September 2020).
2 CM Group, An Initial Assessment of the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Global Aluminium Demand, 2020.
3 IAI, GHG Emissions Data for Aluminium Sector, 21 July 2020 (updated September 2020).
4 IAI, GHG Emissions Data for Aluminium Sector, 21 July 2020 (updated September 2020).
5 IAI, forthcoming
6 Bartels, R., Callahan, A., Burns, D., “Mining & metals post-COVID: Emerging new realities,” Accenture, 2 October 2020, https://www.accenture.com/us-en/blogs/chemicals-and-natural-resources-blog/wef-mining-metals-emerging-new-realities-covid-19