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Five years of environmental progress for European primary aluminium

The European Aluminium Association has published its five yearly assessment of the environmental performance of the aluminium industry. The progress made in Europe is not matched by imported aluminium. 

The report compares primary aluminium produced by smelters in Europe with all primary aluminium processed in Europe. While the primary aluminium produced by European smelters has a significantly lower environmental impact in 2015, compared with 2010, the opposite is true for primary aluminium imported into Europe. The carbon intensity of imported primary aluminium has increased over the same period. This is largely due to a decrease in imports produced from hydroelectricity and an increase in imports based on natural gas. The improvement in domestically produced aluminium is counteracted by the poorer performance of imported aluminium. Taken together the two changes cancel each other out. So the overall environmental impact of the primary aluminium used in Europe remains relatively stable at 8.6 kg CO2e/kg.  

The performance of European smelters, taken overall, has improved significantly with a decrease in the average carbon intensity of the primary aluminium of 21 per cent to 6.7 kg CO2e/kg in 2015. In comparison with 2010 data, the energy mix of the primary aluminium in Europe contains more hydro and geothermal electricity (67% in 2015 vs 54% in 2010) and less coal (9% in 2015 vs 17% in 2010). This is attributed in the report to plant closures in Europe, shifting more production to plants using renewable energy. 

European Aluminium has carefully modelled the energy mix for alumina smelting in Europe and the countries from where imports originate. This is particularly important, as this step is so energy intensive that it dominates the carbon intensity of primary aluminium. The methodology used in the report and calculation has been externally reviewed by independent experts.

To put these figures in context, the 6.7 kg CO2e/kg average figure for Europe covers a range of values with the lowest carbon producers selling aluminium with an audited carbon intensity of below 4 kg CO2e/kg. This compares with an industry average worldwide quoted anywhere between of 11.5 – 18 kg CO2e/kg. And a value of about 20 kg CO2e/kg for China, with its reliance on coal as a power source . The new sustainability scheme launched by the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) requires members to achieve 8 kg CO2e/kg of primary aluminium.

An important conclusion from the study is that Europe is producing some of the most sustainable aluminium in the world, but on average it is importing less sustainable, higher carbon intensity aluminium from other countries. Europe is also increasing it imports of primary aluminium. In 2015, imports of primary metal represented around 49 per cent of European consumption up from 44 per cent in 2010.1

This concept of importing less sustainable material than the counterpart made in Europe is known as ‘carbon leakage’ or importing ‘embedded carbon’. It is common to a number of energy intensive industries, and is related to both lower standards of environmental care and lower costs of fossil energy in some parts of the world. Europe has recognised that the problem needs to be tackled if European industry is to both reduce its environmental impact and remain competitive. 

One way of tackling carbon leakage is to tax embedded carbon in imports similarly to how the EU ETS (emissions trading scheme) impacts local producers. Measures were proposed in 2017 for the EU’s first such border tax on carbon, to be levied on cement imports. In the end, the European Parliament failed to adopt the carbon border tax, because to do so would have disadvantaged less efficient producers in Europe. The problem hasn't gone away though, so it is likely to return to the regulatory agenda.

At present the aluminium market is supporting a growing niche requirement for low carbon material in certain applications. Passenger vehicles, which take advantage of the lightweighting properties of aluminium to reduce tailpipe emissions, are increasingly using low carbon aluminium to appeal to consumers wanting sustainable products. But for low carbon aluminium to become mainstream, trade measures to discourage the importation of aluminium with high embedded carbon must also be implemented. 

Tariffs on aluminium to protect jobs are grabbing the headlines at the moment. A tariff or border tax based on the carbon intensity of primary aluminium would not only help protect jobs in Europe, but it would also protect the environment. 

This article first appeared in Aluminium International.

Published: 18 April 18

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