Largest U.S. aluminum producer releases net-zero plan

October 5, 2021 E&E News
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Aluminum giant Alcoa Corp. announced a new target yesterday to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2050, joining other major metal producers in committing to decarbonize their operations.

Alcoa, the largest U.S. aluminum producer, said its plan includes “Scope 1” and “Scope 2” emissions, which refer to emissions from company operations and the electric power, heat and cooling used in those operations. It said it would reduce emissions from aluminum smelting and alumina refining by 30 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030 from 2015 levels, according to a statement.

The company, based in Pennsylvania, said it would also increase its use of renewable energy and pursue cleaner smelting and refining technologies, such as zero-carbon ELYSIS smelting, which emits oxygen rather than carbon dioxide, and mechanical vapor recompression, which recycles waste heat during the refining process.

“This new endeavor is an extension of our ongoing efforts to reach a decarbonization pathway,” Alcoa President and CEO Roy Harvey said in a statement. “Alcoa’s ambition to drive toward net-zero is aimed at ultimately helping to create a more sustainable aluminum value chain that enables the low-carbon future,” he added.

The move comes as the industrial sector, which includes heavy emitters like aluminum, steel and concrete and produces about 20 percent of global emissions, according to some estimates, has been one of the most difficult to decarbonize.

With yesterday’s announcement, Alcoa joins a number of metal producers that have set net-zero targets, including steelmaker ArcelorMittal SA, which committed last year to being carbon neutral by 2050.

John Walliser, senior vice president of legal and government affairs at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said in an emailed statement that Alcoa’s new emissions pledge is “significant.”

“Decarbonization of [the industrial] sector will be challenging; we see it a priority for current federal climate incentive and policy discussions,” he said.

Industrial fuel use is the third-largest source of emissions in Pennsylvania, representing 18 percent of its total emissions in 2017, following electricity generation and transportation, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Alcoa, however, did not include intentions to cut Scope 3 emissions, which are generated indirectly from sources they do not own or control, such as consumer and supplier activities. Scope 3 emissions often make up the largest proportion of an organization’s total emissions, according to EPA.

Alcoa’s Scope 3 carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 were 40.7 million metric tons, with about 84 percent coming from the transformation of alumina into aluminum by the company’s customers, their latest sustainability report found. Their Scope 1 and 2 emissions totaled 23.9 million metric tons that same year — down from 24.3 million metric tons in 2019, but up from 22 million metric tons in 2017.

Morgan Folger, director of Clean Car Communities, a zero-carbon transportation program at Environment America, said that while there is more the company can do in terms of addressing Scope 3 emissions, “it’s definitely a positive step forward.”

“The production of aluminum itself is pretty energy-intensive, so anything they could do to reduce emissions while they’re producing it will have a significant impact,” she said.

Folger noted that using renewable energy to produce aluminum is particularly important as the metal is used to build other renewable energy products such as solar panels and wind turbines.

“We are still going to need aluminum to an extent for a while, so we can’t give up on creating it all together,” she said. “What we can do is make sure the industry sourcing it is cleaner so we can make the rest of our clean energy project cleaner.”

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