ASI and coal-powered aluminium

The Aluminium Stewardship Initiative has announced a review of its system. A lot has changed since the launch of the sustainability scheme at the end of 2017, so now is the time to re-examine the Standards in the light of the climatic and societal developments that have occurred in the intervening period. The accelerating rate of climate change and the increased frequency of severe weather events should make reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of aluminium products a priority.  Moves towards a circular and net zero economy call for low carbon, recyclable products and packaging. Aluminium produced with a reduced carbon footprint can play a key role in the transition. 

ASI has set a limit to the greenhouse gas intensity of aluminium smelting which is achievable by most modern smelters, except those using electricity generated from coal. Smelting is the step with the highest climate impact. However, ASI certified producers of aluminium building products, vehicles and packaging could keep using much higher carbon aluminium whilst retaining the advantages of membership. This review is an opportunity to change that situation.

All sustainability schemes need to gain critical mass at the outset so that there are enough members to ensure uptake of the scheme. ASI has achieved initial success as membership has climbed to one hundred and nineteen. Certifications to both the Performance and Chain of Custody Standard are growing. Now it can concentrate on achieving more impact. Modifications to multi-stakeholder sustainability schemes like ASI are made through public consultations on the text of the standards and supporting documents. Five years is the normal review period. ASI has brought forward the review to enable NGO members, unhappy with biodiversity protection for bauxite mines, to have their say. This topic, important as it is, should not be the only one under discussion.

The worst form of primary aluminium, from a climate point of view, is produced from coal-powered electricity. ASI has set a limit on the GHG emissions of ASI certified aluminium smelting of 8 tonnes CO2-eq per tonne. The value for smelting using electricity generated from coal can be up to 20 tonnes CO2-eq per tonne. However, downstream members are under no obligation to make products that contain any of this 8 tonnes CO2eq/tonne aluminium at their ASI certified sites. Members could be producing exclusively very high carbon aluminium containing products. In fact, this is quite likely in those areas of the world where power comes mainly from coal. Members can’t claim that these products are ASI certified, but they are allowed to keep producing them.

There is now plenty of low carbon ASI compliant primary aluminium on the market coming from smelters who have the full suite of ASI certification. ASI’s key smelter members already produce some primary aluminium using renewable electricity, with an intensity of about 4 te CO2 eq/te, which is half that of the ASI benchmark. Perhaps it is time to steer downstream members away from purchasing the worst type of aluminium so that demand for ASI and other forms of low/medium carbon aluminium grows. This can be done without being prescriptive or forcing members to buy ASI certified material. Members can reduce the carbon intensity of their products by using any low carbon primary, or by incorporating recycled aluminium. They can also buy ASI credits if they are not part of a certified supply chain. The calculation of cradle to gate greenhouse gas intensity of a company’s product range is already required in the ASI Performance Standard, so certified members are equipped to implement any new requirements.

Of course, ASI wants to keep attracting new members and retain its relevance to the majority of the sector. But the increased interest in low carbon products should not be ignored. Responsible Steel, which is ASI’s younger equivalent in the steel sector, has just launched a ‘steelzero’ initiative within its wider membership. ASI may also need to work with committed members to bring lower carbon aluminium products to the market. ASI shouldn’t wait: the climate is right to act now.

Updated 22 June 20

Published: 4 May 20

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