Non-ferrous metals industry decarbonisation plan: strategies and solutions
A decarbonisation plan aims to reduce and possibly zero-net the balance of GHG emissions. Mines and metal production plants contribute more than 10% of global emissions. That is, 5.9 Gigatonnes (Gt) of Co2 equivalent out of a total of 52.8 Gt in 2021. Mining produces 0.5 Gt. The downstream metals industry makes 5.4 Gt, of which only aluminium and steel account for 4.2 Gt, while all other metals add up to 1.2 Gt.
The environmental impact of the non-ferrous metals industry
Environmental sustainability is not only a question of GHG emissions and the related decarbonisation plan. In fact, the environmental impact of any industrial chain also concerns water and soil consumption, air and water quality, industrial waste treatment, etc. This is particularly relevant in the mining and downstream processing of metals, ferrous and non-ferrous. Also because, to put it mildly, in many areas of the world these types of measurements are not always easy.
For example, according to the Responsible Mining Foundation’s FMI 2020 report analysed in the Friends of the Earth newsletter Astrolabe, out of a sample of 180 mining sites worldwide “only 13 per cent report the results of monitoring water quality downstream of their operations compared to an average of 60 per cent for monitoring water consumption levels”.
And within the non-ferrous metals industry, cases of heavy pollution or environmental disasters have been recorded over the past two decades in several regions with copper, lithium, nickel, graphite, cobalt and rare earth mining and production sites from China to South America, Indonesia, Russia, Africa and even the US and Finland.
Current challenges and decarbonisation needs
The European non-ferrous metals industry is called to a decarbonisation plan. The control and reduction of direct GHG emissions and at least part of the indirect ones of the supply chain involves first of all a different energy mix, where the need for the economic sustainability of the renewable sources and diversification of risk of technological dependence and raw materials necessary for generation and storage plants (de-risking China).
But it’s not just the energy issue. In fact, we also need a redefinition, at least partially, of the supply chains for non-ferrous metal raw materials. That is, fewer primary materials, almost all imported from outside Europe. And more secondary subjects from riciclo in Europa. Therefore, the challenge of environmental sustainability also arises in European supply chains, including the reduction of the carbon footprint, of the metal recycling processes in the various phases of collection, selection, treatment, disposal of waste, etc.
Emission reduction strategies and solutions
in this context, on 7 September 2023 the industry commission of the European Parliament voted by a large majority on the proposal to increase the recycling capacity and the internal industrial capacity for refining and processing metals by 10% for each of the 16 raw materials considered strategic, in mostly non-ferrous metals, among the 34 materials listed in the new formulation of the EU Critical Raw Materials Act. Where an important source of metals to be recycled are disused batteries.
List to which bauxite/alumina/aluminium has also been added. But the challenge for decarbonized aluminum in Europe is challenging, as primary production has fallen to an all-time low. As reported by Energia Oltre, according to the executive president of En+ (Anglo-Russian group controlled by Rusal) and former British energy and climate minister Greg Barker, in addition to investing in technologies for Co2 capture and fusion low-emission aluminum, «the sector must collaborate with the logistics and maritime transport industries, which ship the metal in all its forms around the world. Furthermore, improving the recovery and recycling of aluminum scrap can reduce the need for the primary material by 15 percent.”