The UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru from the 1 to the 12th December is all about how best to adapt to the mounting facts – a change in the climate is taking its toll. Take a look at the periodic table and highlight the state of play. A lot of these elements are not going to last for ever.
Today in the Financial Times high energy costs in the EU are closing aluminium plants – 11 smelters out of 24 across the EU have closed since 2007 as output has fallen by 40 per cent. And this is despite the fact that demand for aluminium is surging as it becomes the metal of choice for manufacturing light weight cars and ships to reduce fuel consumption and is favoured by environmentalists because it is easy to recycle.
The challenge to EU plants is that where regulation of CO2 emissions are being taxed in the EU; other places with less stringent regulation, like the Middle East, are increasing market share. And, like many industries, aluminium across Europe spawned clusters like the one at Neuss, where know-how, packaging, fabrication and packaging all stick together to exploit synergies. Take away the anchor business of aluminium smelting and the threat to wider communities is clear – job losses and a spiral of decline.
There are even more serious consequences. Aluminium is the poster child for a shift from linear (take, make and throw away) supply chains to circular ones more sensitive to sustainability and the re-use and re-cycling of ever more scarce raw materials. Aluminium – which is the most common element on earth with 8 per cent of the earth’s crust – is not a cradle to grave product; 35 per cent of aluminium used in production across the world is recycled.
Recycled aluminium requires only 5 per cent of the energy used for primary production from bauxite to smelting plant. Thirty one per cent of aluminium in the USA is recycled; in Brazil, 98 per cent of aluminium can production – that’s 14.7 billion cans per year – is recycled and the figure in Japan is 82 per cent. A can is back on the shelf as a re-cycled can 60 days after purchase.
The benefits are immense. If the business model to collect, separate and recycle can be put in place capital costs in energy, manufacturing, landfills and shipping reduce significantly. Currently, aluminium recycling saves over 90 million tonnes of CO2 and more than 100 GWh of electrical energy. This is equal to the power consumption of Holland.
We need to adapt to climate change globally. This means global industries – with global shareholders – need to take this on board globally and not given the incentive to “move plants” to places where regulation is failing to deal with this issue to increase profits and shareholder dividends.
More significantly, business needs to move to collect and re-cycle scarce elements that they use in their products and not just leave this to others – until the price reaches such heights that raw materials all over the world no longer come cheap. Adapting to climate change means the transformation of far more supply chains from linear to circular. Recycling – as in the case of aluminium – can be made to work. Every minute of every day 113,200 aluminium cans are recycled across the globe. What can be said of the rest of that periodic table?