Climate Change and the Global Aluminum Industry — the Role of China

In reference to our previous post last month on China’s role in the global economy, “China Weighs Environmental Costs”, consider the following THREE facts:

1. China is now the world’s largest producer (> 50%) of primary aluminum using mostly (> 80%) coal-generated electricity;

2. Production of primary aluminum requires large quantity of electricity, and therefore emits a large quantity of GHG (12 tonnes of CO2eq per tonne of aluminum); and

3. China is also the world’s largest emitter of CO2, the main component of GHG.

See our previous post, China’s Soaring Coal Consumption Poses Climate Challenge.

From last month: China Weighs Environmental Costs

China’s growing economy has had a severely negative impact on its environment. As a tactic to reverse the threats of climate change, the Chinese Government announced it would “name and shame” China’s worst cities and factories into publicly revealing their environmental standards. The government has also set a goal of curbing emissions in major industries by 30% by the end of 2017.

China’s pollution has taken its toll on its citizens: this month, a new study revealed that air pollution from coal combustion has decreased life expectancy by over five years in various areas of the country. Previously in 2013, a harsh smog over China and stocks of rice — contaminated with the toxin cadmium — produced public outrage.

The Chinese government has been met with much opposition, namely from local governments, which will make it even that more difficult to implement and carry out new environmental policy; many local governments work on a system that remunerates officials solely based on economic performance. Beijing will be the first city to promote local officials on both economic and environmental accomplishments.

China has pledged to control its energy intensity — energy used per unit of economic output — there is little chance that we will see a direct descent in emissions. Just recently, China and the US both decided to scale back on a particular type of greenhouse gas; but China retorted that developed countries must set an example by successfully limiting carbon emissions.

For the last few years, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has calculated the country’s “green GDP”, as a means to estimate the unseen costs of its environmental indifference. The ministry’s study discovered that in 2010, the cost of pollution was almost 1.5 trillion Yuan, or $250 billion, or 3.5% of 2010′s GDP; in 2004, the cost was 511.8 billion Yuan, 3.1% of China’s GDP that year.

Climate change is a global issue. China is now the second-largest global economy and the largest emitter of GHG. Fortunately, China is slowing down, and steadily examining and balancing conflicting goals and resultant policies between short-term economic pressures and long-term environmental considerations.

With global economic slowdown, it will be politically and economically difficult, if not impossible, for developed countries to act unilaterally, unless developing countries — such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and newly added South Africa (BRICS) — do their part.

To compound and complicate this situation even further, an education program must be initiated to “convert” a large population of “climate change deniers” in many countries, including the US.

There are many ways to limit the carbon footprint of the global aluminum industry as articulated in papers by Dr. Das:

However, any discussion on climate change and the global aluminum industry must focus on China.

Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan

August 31, 2013

Phinix LLC

Copyright 2013. All rights Reserved by Phinix, LLC.

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6 thoughts on “Climate Change and the Global Aluminum Industry — the Role of China

  1. Hello Subodh,

    Nice article, I think you’re absolutely right that aluminum primary production is a high-priority target for reducing industrial GHG emissions. With China as the biggest player in both aluminum and emissions, addressing this intersection of GHG emissions from Chinese aluminum production can make a big dent in the global industrial carbon footprint.

    I have two questions.

    First, have you identified any areas in particular where they are well below the industry’s best practices in the rest of the world? Obviously the source of electricity is a major one, but that is outside of the plant. In your experience, what is the major low-hanging fruit in potential energy and emissions reduction at Chinese facilities?

    Second, what do you think are the prospects for a political/economic climate in China where emissions reduction becomes important enough for them to devote significant resources to it? That is, do you think the Chinese government would risk higher production costs and reduced competitiveness which would accompany tighter regulations? Or do you think there are ways to break this trade-off by reducing costs and emissions together?

    I noticed one typo: the link to your second JOM paper is missing “pdf” on the end of it.

    Regards, Adam

    • Adam,
      Thanks for your comments. May be we can talk sometimes.
      Chinese are not using the best available AP technology as MENA countries ( including Alcoa in Saudi Arabia) are using.
      The Chinese government would not risk higher production costs and reduced competitiveness which would accompany tighter regulations. They have their own self-serving rules.

      Thanks … I will fix the typo..

  2. Here is an interesting table for Canada

    Table 3-1 CO 2 Emissions Per Unit Electricity (Utilities) by Region, 2009

    Notes CO2 Emissions (kg / MWh)
    BC 24 Primarily hydro
    Alberta 882 Primarily coal
    Saskatchewan 721 Primarily coal
    Manitoba 17 Primarily hydro
    Québec 3 Primarily hydro
    Prince Edward Is. 1
    Newfoundland 23 Primarily Labrador Hydro
    Source: CIEEDAC 2011c, calculated from RESD and EPGTD data from STC.

    even within Canada the GHG cost of can vary by a factor of 882 !

    In Canada all Al is produced from dedicated hydro dams in Quebec and British Columbia that were built in 1940-1950 and are located close to the smelter, hence the GHG cost of delivering the 15.4 kWh/kg of Al of electrical energy required for electrolysis is is zero. The GHG cost of doing the same with 80% coal fueled electricity generation would be ~ 7.20 * 15.4 = 11,088 kg CO2/kg of Al. with 20 million tonnes of Al production in China that is >220 million tonnes of CO2 released annually in China related to prime Al electrolysis alone. All of it was avoidable by building smelters with their own hydro dams, tidal power plants, geothermal power and wind farms.

    Happily China is well on its way in supplementing their 990 GW electricity generating grid with green energy sources:
    For example the Three Gorges Dam on Yangtze river is now generating 22.5 GW of power for the Chinese electricity grid. Total Chinese operating hydro power is 200 GW with target of 300 GW of hyro for 2020 and economic capacity for 400 GW of hydro in China.
    China also now has 61 GW of cumulative grid-connected wind energy capacity. It leads the world in new wind generation installations every year since since 2009. (19 GW in 2011 and 15 GW in 2012).
    There is also some movement is shifting from coal to natural gas in fossil fueled plants which have total capacity of ~730 GW in China.

    Continuation of this trends in China is the low hanging fruit for reduction of GHG emission intensity for the Global Al industry.

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