How Russia's War on Ukraine Affects 'Green' Aluminum

Thirty percent of it is made in Russia and is being replaced with dirty coal-fired aluminum.

Image of an aluminum smelter in France.
The aluminum smelter in France is shut down due to high electricity costs.

Sylvain Lefevre / Getty Images

Aluminum sells itself—it's light, it lasts forever, and it's the most recycled material on Earth! It takes so much energy to make that it has been nicknamed "solid electricity," but when it's made with hydroelectric power, some call it "green." I call this light blue aluminum, but that is another story.

And the world's largest supplier of hydro-powered aluminum is En+ Group IPJSC—a Russian company that was, until recently, controlled by oligarch Oleg Deripaska who, according to E&E News, just fled to Sri Lanka.

We have noted before that aluminum made with clean electricity has one-fifth of the carbon footprint of aluminum made with coal-fired electricity. En+ controls 15.1 gigawatts of installed hydropower capacity which it uses to make 20% of the world's supply of hydro-powered aluminum. Like Rio Tinto and Alcoa and its "revolutionary" aluminum, En+ has developed an "inert anode" technology that gets rid of the carbon anode and has oxygen as a byproduct instead of carbon dioxide (CO2). The company claims: "The metallurgical segment En + Group is developing new material to create an inert anode. Not only the new technology prevents oxidizing (which will reduce costs), it will completely eliminate harmful emissions."

European and North American countries have studiously avoided boycotts on critical materials like Russian aluminum, but many companies have stopped buying from Russian sources—most notably Anheuser-Busch, which has made a major commitment to cleaner aluminum and had a deal with En+. Aluminum expert and analyst Uday Patel of Wood Mackenzie tells E&E that being cut off from En+ presents "a huge challenge."

There are other options in the marketplace for companies to buy aluminum with a minimal carbon footprint, Patel said. Investments in scrap recycling could provide an opportunity for more low-carbon aluminum production to come online and some coal- and oil-based smelters are trying out carbon capture to reduce emissions. However, Patel said, industry innovation remains largely in an exploratory phase. By taking the Russians off the table, the conflict may "derail" progress for some large companies to achieve their long-term climate commitments by forcing companies to "end up using slightly higher carbon metal."

Patel is correct. The only truly sustainable aluminum is recycled, what I called "dark green aluminum." That's because all virgin aluminum is made from alumina, which comes from bauxite that's cooked at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In "There's No Such Thing as Carbon-Free Aluminum," I quoted the Financial Review's Matthew Stevens, who said, "Until alumina arrives emissions-free, no one can claim to be selling greenhouse emissions-free aluminum."

I wrote earlier about this:

"When you come right down to it, the only truly green aluminum is recycled from post-consumer waste. This is where we truly have to go, to a closed-loop where we stop the hugely destructive mining of bauxite and processing it into alumina. The recycling rate of aluminum is high at 67% but the rate for packaging is far lower at 37%. Much of that goes into foil pouches and multilayer materials that can't be recycled affordably."

We're in a Crisis and We Have to Change Now

A screenshot of a tweet reply


Change has been happening astonishingly quickly since the invasion of Ukraine; energy policies are being rewritten daily. People are contemplating changes they never would have considered.

Meanwhile, aluminum prices have spiked to their highest prices ever and shipments from China, which usually is a net consumer rather than exporter, are happening because the price is so high.

According to Bloomberg:

"Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European buyers were facing a deepening aluminum shortage as soaring energy costs over the winter forced producers in the region to curb output. The risk of further smelter cuts is growing with power prices surging again in the wake of Moscow’s attack, while Russian flows are being throttled as shipping giants refuse to call at key ports such as St. Petersburg and Novorossiysk." 

This is all that I called "dark brown" aluminum, made with coal-fired electricity, with five times the carbon footprint of hydro-electric powered "light blue" aluminum. This is a step backward. Carl A. Zimring got it right in his 2017 book, "Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective": 

"The most sustainable automobile design of the twenty-first century is not the F150 aluminum pickup, or the electric Tesla, the most sustainable automotive design is not an automobile at all, but a system to distribute transportation services – car sharing, bicycle sharing, product service systems, simply owning less stuff and sharing more so that overall demand for new stuff declines. Because even such intense and virtuous recycling that we do with aluminum, even if we catch every single can and aluminum foil container, it’s not enough. We still have to use less of the stuff if we are going to stop the environmental destruction and pollution that making virgin aluminum causes."

If we are going to not buy Russian hydro-powered aluminum, then we have to cut back our consumption accordingly, just like we are talking about with natural gas. We could do that by "lightweighting" everything, by making smaller and lighter pickup trucks and cars that use less aluminum. We could promote refillable bottles instead of cans for soft drinks and beer, or put a big honking deposit on them so that we know that they are returned. We could put a carbon tax on aluminum that varies according to its carbon footprint—its "color."

It may be taking a war to motivate us to do this, but we have a climate emergency as well as a Russia problem. And we have to give something up rather than buy more dirty aluminum.

View Article Sources
  1. Holzman, Jael, and Hiar, Corbin, "War threatens supply of 'green' aluminum for cars, beer cans." E&E News: ClimateWire.

  2. Stevens, Matthew, "Rio's green aluminum isn't carbon free." Financial Review.

  3. "Ukraine war spurs shipments of aluminum from China to Europe." Bloomberg News.