Aluminum Association reports on decarbonisation

A new report from environmental consulting firm ICF and the Aluminum Association, Pathways to Decarbonization: A North American Aluminum Roadmap, highlights potential strategies to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in the North American (United States and Canada) aluminium industry by mid-century. The roadmap lays out theoretical pathways to achieve industrywide carbon emission reductions consistent with the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero by 2050 goals. 

The report also finds that the North American region has a significant first mover advantage in terms of its aluminium product carbon footprint — which is about 50% lower than global averages. This advantage is attributed to the use of low carbon primary aluminium, increased recycling and voluntary emissions reductions efforts over the past several decades. However, meeting such aggressive emissions reductions targets by mid-century will require an all-of-society approach to decarbonisation and tens of billions of dollars in both public and private investment.

“Our industry is proud of the vital role we play in the clean energy transition and the strides we’ve made to reduce carbon emissions over the last several decades,” said Charles Johnson, president & CEO of the Aluminum Association. “Average carbon emissions to produce a pound of aluminium in North America has dropped by more than half since 1991 giving us a significant head start over the rest of the world and an opportunity to lead the way producing lower carbon metal. But we know that much more must be done to meet net zero targets by 2050.”

According to the roadmap, achieving net zero targets will require aluminum production emissions declines of 24% by 2030; 63% by 2040; and 92% by 2050 compared to a 2021 emissions baseline. Output is projected to increase by around 80% during this period — driven by growing demand for the metal to support sustainability efforts in various sectors.

The roadmap identifies several key pathways to reach the dramatic 2050 emissions reduction targets:

  • Aluminum Production Technology and Efficiency Improvements: Development and deployment of new primary aluminum production technologies like inert anode smelting and the chloride process to remove direct emissions; changes to current alumina production methods; and energy efficiency improvements at the plant level.
  • Alternative Fuels and Carbon Capture: Transition to new energy sources like green hydrogen; electrification of furnaces; and the deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies.
  • Grid Decarbonisation: Deployment of clean energy technologies to decarbonise the U.S. electric grid based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) “high uptake” scenario enabled by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).  

In addition to the pathways noted above, recycling more aluminium more efficiently can dramatically speed up industry emissions reductions. The model includes both a Constrained Scrap Utilisation scenario (as a baseline) and Optimal Scrap Utilisation scenario. The optimal utilisation scenario eliminates an additional 160 million metric tons of CO2e emissions by 2050 on top of the 127 metric million tons of reduced CO2e emissions assumed under the constrained scenario. This total reduction is equivalent to taking more than 68 million cars off the road for a year. 

In total, about one-third of the required emissions reductions by 2050 can come from aluminum production technology improvements over which the industry itself has the most control. The other two-thirds of reduction must come from a combination of newly developed, affordable manufacturing technologies; deployment of state and federal research and infrastructure investment; and a national policy that supports the clean energy transition.

Third-party analysists estimate that it will take approximately $1 trillion across the global primary production value chain – mostly in power supply and smelters – to meet global net-zero climate goals by 2050. With North American primary aluminum accounting for about 6% of global production, a conservative estimate of approximately $60 billion in public and private investment for the region is needed to meet global net-zero climate targets in the primary production segment alone.

“This research sends a strong message that decarbonising the energy sector is a prerequisite for decarbonising not only the aluminium industry but also other heavy manufacturing,” Johnson added. “Achieving these ambitious targets by mid-century will require an all-of-society approach to decarbonisation. The aluminium industry won’t be able to do this alone.”

The roadmap finds that the North American region has a significant first mover advantage on emissions reduction as compared to other parts of the world. Domestically produced aluminium and aluminium products are about half as carbon intensive as aluminium products made in the rest of the world. And aluminium products made in China are 2.5X more carbon intensive than North American aluminium, on average. Assuming the global aluminium industry commits to dramatic emission reductions efforts, it would still take 8 to 10 years for the rest of the world to produce semi-fabricated aluminium at the same carbon intensity as North America does today.

“Our roadmap makes clear that importing carbon-intensive aluminium from outside of North America to meet growing demand will only exacerbate global emissions, cost jobs and weaken supply chain resilience,” said Johnson. “We need to make more aluminium here.”

To support the transition to lower carbon, domestic aluminium production, federal and state policymakers and regulators must:

  • Ensure the availability, abundance and affordability of clean energy to reduce emissions across aluminium manufacturing. 
  • Support policies and technologies that drive increased aluminium recycling like better scrap sorting, closed loop material management and recycling incentive programmes.
  • Enforce a fair international trade system and effective monitoring that provides transparency about the carbon emissions embedded in international trade flows. 
  • Provide research and development incentives for clean aluminium production technologies in primary aluminium smelting, alumina refining, scrap melting and semi-fabrication.
  • Facilitate access to capital for manufacturers to deploy industrial decarbonisation technologies at the plant level.

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