Climate Action

The aluminium industry: Partnerships that bring change

The aluminium industry cannot decarbonize on its own: it needs all hands on deck to speed up the upscaling of new technologies

The aluminium industry cannot decarbonize on its own: it needs all hands on deck to speed up the upscaling of new technologies Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jelena Aleksić
Lead, Industry Decarbonization, Aluminium and Non-Ferrous Metals, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The growth of aluminium demand requires a strong focus on sustainable primary aluminium production alongside increased recycling as part of efforts to combat the climate crisis and ensure energy security.
  • Close cooperation between the aluminium value chain and other partners within the industry set good examples for successful decarbonization.
  • Partnerships blend vision and aspiration with groundbreaking technological innovation and deployment of funds to upscale low-carbon aluminium.

Driven largely by increased use in transportation, construction, packaging and the electrical sectors, global aluminium demand will increase by almost 40% by 2030, from 86.2 million tonnes (Mt) in 2020 to 119.5 Mt in 2030. It is important to make this growth sustainable.

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To achieve this goal, the production of secondary, recycled aluminium derived from scrap metal will need to grow substantially alongside primary aluminium production. However, since the recycled material uses only 5% of the energy required to produce primary aluminium, the challenge remains to decarbonize primary aluminium production by lowering its current global industry emissions average of 15.1 t of CO2 equivalent per tonne (CO2e/t) of primary production to as close to zero as possible, as soon as posible.

The experience so far shows that this challenge can better be addressed through collaboration and partnership among key stakeholders. What else have we learned so far?

Stretching targets through broad coalitions

Reaching the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature increase to well below 2°Celsius, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, requires all interested parties to act boldly. Setting individual national, industry or corporate emission reduction targets is a good place to start, but is increasingly becoming not enough. This is where coalitions can play a role, forging further unconventional partnerships.

In 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, at the initiative of the World Economic Forum and the US government, a group of pioneering companies came together to launch a new coalition articulating a strong, collective goal to drive the change that needs to happen. The First Movers Coalition (FMC) today comprises 96 companies and 13 governments engaging in six “hard-to-abate” industrial sectors and in carbon dioxide removal. A number of FMC members voluntarily agreed to commit to decarbonizing efforts in the aluminium sector, globally contributing to emissions of nearly 270 Mt of direct CO2 in 2022 (about 3% of the world’s direct industrial CO2 emissions), according to the International Energy Agency.

The First Movers committed to purchasing at least 10% of their annual primary aluminium volumes with a carbon footprint below 3 t of CO2e/t by 2030. The low threshold of less than 3 t of CO2e/t of aluminium was derived based on the range of likely emissions intensity associated with using green technologies not yet at scale and a likely outcome of deploying a combination of renewable energy, CCUS, and/or inert anodes, acknowledged by the transition strategy for the aluminium industry.

The 10% was seen as being ambitious yet possible for founding members to achieve with strong efforts. Moreover, some companies signed up for a secondary commitment requiring that at least 50% of all aluminium procured by 2030 is recycled aluminium. The 50% number was derived from stakeholder consultation as a threshold that was sufficiently above global averages for recycled content use and as such motivating. By setting these stretching purchasing targets, the First Movers have collectively risen the bar for their suppliers, too.

Voluntary commitments made by joining the First Movers Coalition are subject to the availability of technology supply that enables companies to meet their 2030 purchase pledges acknowledging that these technologies may come at a premium cost.

Surfacing near-zero aluminium supply

New technologies take time and resources to come to fruition. One exemplary story is that of inert anode technology, piloted more than 130 years after the original discovery of the Hall-Héroult industrial process of aluminium smelting. This groundbreaking technology has the potential to revolutionize the production of one of the world’s most widely used metals.

The new technology is known as ELYSISTM, which is also the name of a partnership company created by Alcoa and Rio Tinto. The technology, which was first developed at the Alcoa Technical Center outside of Pittsburgh, produces pure oxygen instead of CO2 and eliminates all direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the traditional smelting process. The use of this carbon-free smelting technology in combination with the use of clean energy sources may reduce as much as 80% of the global aluminium industry’s GHG emissions.

With the support from the governments of Canada and Quebec, the ELYSISTM technology has continued to make progress and start the production of commercial-purity primary aluminium at industrial scale. The construction of its larger commercial-scale prototype cells is also underway.

Apple, committed to reducing the environmental impact of their products through innovation, has supported this new technology development financially and technically as a non-equity investor in ELYSIS since the start. The FMC Aluminium Sector Champion has already used low-carbon primary aluminium in the production of the 16-inch MacBook Pro from the first-ever commercial batch of ELYSIS aluminium in 2019, while the iPhone SE was its second product to be shipped using metal produced from the ELYSISTM process.

Additional FMC members have used this breakthrough technology to further decarbonize their own projects. Two FMC Aluminium Sector founding members, Ball and Novelis, collaborated closely to produce the first ultra-low carbon aluminium cup, 10% of which is composed of ELYSIS primary aluminium supplied by Alcoa and 90% of recycled, secondary aluminium supplied by Novelis. Ball and Novelis have also set up a closed loop system to ensure the aluminium cups are infinitely recycled, translating their strategic corporate sustainability priorities directly into reality.

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These examples of unorthodox collaboration show that supply chain collaboration to decarbonize the aluminium sector is not only possible, but fundamental. Employing end users’ products to tell the story about the traceable low carbon footprint of products companies make with the use of clean technologies is essential for their global deployment. The aluminium industry cannot decarbonize on its own: it needs all hands on deck to speed up the upscaling of new technologies, in addition to creative approaches for collecting, sorting and segregating aluminium scrap for recycling.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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