Is ASI’s approach to emissions reductions a COP out?

The final COP26 agreement is the first ever climate deal which explicitly commits to reducing the use of coal, the worst fossil fuel. So, it may come as a surprise that ASI (Aluminium Stewardship Initiative) is proposing to continue the certification of aluminium smelters using coal power, providing they commit to both emissions reductions in the future and alignment with the 1.5°C aligned emission pathways for the aluminium sector. At the same time, ASI has distanced itself from a benchmark for aluminium produced with renewable power; low carbon aluminium.

ASI is the sustainability scheme set up by the aluminium sector and brand owners to reduce environmental and social impacts of the supply chain. The aluminium industry accounts for about 2% of the world’s man-made GHG emissions, and the smelting of aluminium is by far the most energy intensive step. All smelters will probably need to use renewable energy to reach net zero.

The proposed loosening of the GHG emissions requirements, was proposed as part of the routine five-year review.  Nearly six hundred comments were submitted during the first public consultation on these and other changes. The comments are currently being considered by ASI’s Standards Committee and they will be published with the draft revised Standards, which is planned for January 2022. 

The rationale behind the ASI decisions is that they are prefer an inclusive approach, which gives all smelters a pathway to get to net zero by 2050. But there is a balance to be struck between inclusivity and credibility. It is simpler to make commitments about reaching net zero than delivering it. 

In a way, ASI faces the same dilemma as organisers of the COP. Countries find it easier to agree on GHG emissions reductions in the future than to draw a line in the sand about damaging activities which must be stopped. And it will be very difficult to move away from coal in parts of the world such as China and India, which rely on it for power generation.   It is no surprise that these countries caused the wording on coal in the final statement to be changed from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’. So, aluminium smelters in China and India will have difficulty in moving away from coal powered electricity. Of course, there is still the possibility that carbon capture and storage could reduce their emissions. However, burning coal produces so many pollutants  (another good reason for giving it up) that the required clean-up renders a coal power station unattractive for such technology.

Some countries have invested heavily in renewable power and their aluminium smelters are already producing low carbon aluminium. COP26 boosted the profile of this green aluminium. Traders expect that demand will grow and the premium for low carbon aluminium compared with conventional material will increase as a result of the additional focus on sustainability.  Brand owners are now buying this low carbon material as part of their strategies to reach net zero. Nespresso has committed to decarbonize its value chain by 2022, by increasing the use of recycled and low carbon aluminium. Audi and BMW are both ramping up production of electric vehicles, for which the light weight of aluminium is key. Audi is sourcing low carbon metal for its e-tron GT wheels and BMW is using aluminium made with solar energy. 

Of course, there are other important risks in the aluminium supply chain in addition to climate impact.  ASI has always had a strong focus on protecting biodiversity, ecosystems and the rights of indigenous peoples in bauxite mining areas. These Principles have been strengthened in proposals for the revised Standard, with new requirements added under each heading.  

The branding of different types of sustainable aluminium is becoming complex with ASI certified and low carbon, not to mention recycled, all having different meanings. Each reduces some environmental impacts, but no one label does it all.  It doesn’t have to be like that. As delegates from COP26 go back to improve their emissions saving commitments for next year, the climate is right for ASI to do the same. 

Published: 17 November 21

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