In recent years, the global push for sustainability and the transition to green energy sources has highlighted the need for low-carbon production methods across various industries. One sector facing particular challenges is the aluminum industry, with its heavy carbon footprint. Rio Tinto, a prominent player in the industry, has recognized the urgency to reduce its emissions and decarbonize its operations. However, the path to low-carbon aluminum production is not without obstacles. In this article, we will explore Rio Tinto’s efforts to achieve its emissions reduction targets, the challenges it faces, and the potential solutions it is pursuing.
The Aluminum Paradox
Aluminum, a metal vital to the green energy transition, paradoxically comes with a heavy carbon footprint. The aluminum sector alone accounts for approximately 2% of all man-made emissions each year. Rio Tinto, one of the world’s leading aluminum producers, is grappling with the carbon problems associated with its aluminum business. In 2020, Rio Tinto’s aluminum business accounted for 21.1 million metric tons of carbon emissions, out of a group total of 30.3 million metric tons1.
The company has set ambitious emissions reduction targets, aiming to cut group emissions in half by 2030. However, Rio Tinto has conceded that it is unlikely to meet its 15% reduction target by 2025 without purchasing carbon credits. This admission reflects the challenges faced by the aluminum industry in decarbonizing its operations.
Impairment Charges and Carbon Costs
The effort by Rio Tinto to lower its carbon footprint has cost the company money. The two alumina refineries in Australia cost the corporation $1.175 billion to write down in the second quarter. The high price tag of decarbonizing the refineries and the unstable alumina market are to blame for this levy.
One of the short-term costs Rio Tinto faces is Australia’s new carbon tax on large industrial operators. The carbon tax imposes additional costs on companies that exceed carbon caps, forcing them to pay for carbon offsets. Additionally, Rio Tinto’s Australian operations, including its alumina refineries and aluminum smelters, rely heavily on a national power grid largely driven by coal and gas, further contributing to its carbon footprint.
Evaluating the Australian Operations
The Queensland Aluminium (QAL) and Yarwun refineries in Australia account for a sizeable portion of Rio Tinto’s total emissions. Half of the mining group’s direct emissions in Australia are from these two refineries, which will produce 6.4 million metric tons of alumina in 2020. Most of Rio Tinto’s direct and Scope 2 emissions1 come from its three energy-intensive smelters and its operations in Australia.
To address these challenges, Rio Tinto is evaluating a major capital investment project at the QAL refinery aimed at improving efficiency and reducing emissions. However, if this project, known as the “double digestion” project, does not proceed, the mining group has indicated that it may fully write down the QAL plant. The Australian government’s revised Safeguard Mechanism, which sets carbon caps on major emitters, triggered the write-down due to the associated costs of compliance.
Greening the Grid and Experimental Technologies
One of the key challenges the mining group faces in decarbonizing its Australian operations is the dependence on a power grid predominantly fueled by coal and gas. Approximately 93% of Australia’s alumina refineries were dependent on fossil fuel power in 2021. While Rio Tinto’s Canadian smelter network benefits from Quebec’s hydro-electric system, its Atlantic operations still generated 4.8 million metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions in 2020.
Rio Tinto is looking into new technologies and forms of energy to find solutions to this problem. The Yarwun refinery will begin using hydrogen in place of natural gas thanks to a joint venture between the firm and Japan’s Sumitomo Corp. Although there is hope that this new technology will help cut down on carbon dioxide emissions, it is not yet ready to be implemented on Australia’s electricity grid.
Pursuing Low-Carbon Innovations
Despite the challenges, Rio Tinto is actively pursuing various paths towards greener aluminum production. In its North American operations, the company is partnering with Alcoa to develop inert cathode technology, which aims to reduce Scope 1 emissions in the smelting process. The construction of the first commercial-scale prototype cells has begun at Rio Tinto’s Alma smelter in Canada, with operations expected to commence this year. Additionally, the mining group plans to expand the low-carbon AP60 smelter in Quebec, increasing its capacity by 160,000 metric tons per year by 2026.
Investing in recycled aluminum is another avenue Rio Tinto is exploring to reduce emissions. Recycled aluminum requires only 5% of the power needed to produce virgin metal. The company has recently announced a joint venture with Giampaolo Group, a major player in North America’s secondary aluminum industry, with a capacity to produce 900,000 metric tons per year of recycled metal. These efforts reflect the mining group’s commitment to sustainable practices and the circular economy.
The Australian Operations and Renewable Energy
Despite Rio Tinto’s progress in pursuing low-carbon innovations, its Australian operations remain a significant challenge on the path towards a lower carbon future. Rio Tinto views these operations as critical to its wider portfolio and emphasizes their role in underwriting renewable energy. However, the company warns that without access to renewable energy at a competitive price, manufacturing and exporting aluminum out of Australia may become impossible. This highlights the importance of addressing the availability and affordability of renewable energy sources for sustainable aluminum production.
Rio Tinto’s journey towards low-carbon aluminum production is a complex and challenging process. The company faces financial implications, market conditions, and the dependence on fossil fuel-powered grids. However, Rio Tinto is actively exploring various avenues to reduce its emissions and pursue sustainable practices. Innovations such as inert cathode technology, hydrogen usage, and investments in recycled aluminum demonstrate the company’s commitment to a greener future. Overcoming the obstacles of decarbonization in the aluminum industry is crucial for achieving global sustainability goals and ensuring a more environmentally friendly energy transition.
Q: What is Rio Tinto’s emissions reduction target?
A: The mining group aims to cut its group emissions in half by 2030.
Q: Why did Rio Tinto book an impairment charge for its Australian alumina refineries?
A: Rio Tinto faced challenging market conditions for alumina and incurred significant costs in decarbonizing its operations.
Q: How dependent is Australia’s alumina industry on fossil fuel power?
A: Approximately 93% of Australia’s alumina refineries were dependent on coal or gas power in 2021.
Q: What low-carbon innovations is Rio Tinto pursuing?
A: Rio Tinto is exploring inert cathode technology, hydrogen usage, and investing in recycled aluminum to reduce emissions.
Q: What challenges does Rio Tinto face in decarbonizing its Australian operations?
A: Rio Tinto’s Australian operations depend on a power grid largely driven by coal and gas, posing challenges for decarbonization efforts.
Q: Why is affordable renewable energy crucial for Rio Tinto’s Australian operations?
A: Without access to competitive-priced renewable energy, manufacturing and exporting aluminum out of Australia may become unfeasible.
Q: What is the impact of the aluminum industry on global emissions?
A: The aluminum sector accounts for approximately 2% of all man-made emissions annually.
Q: How does recycled aluminum contribute to emissions reduction?
A: Producing recycled aluminum requires only 5% of the power needed for virgin metal production, significantly reducing emissions.
Q: What is the role of Rio Tinto’s Australian operations in underwriting renewable energy?
A: Rio Tinto considers its Australian operations as critical to its wider portfolio and emphasizes their potential to support renewable energy initiatives.
Q: What are Rio Tinto’s long-term emissions reduction goals?
A: Rio Tinto aims to cut its emissions in half by 2030 and continues to explore innovative solutions to achieve this target.
First reported on Reuters