INTERVIEW: Aluminium without environmental standards is history, Norsk Hydro CEO says

Efforts by the global aluminium industry to meet emissions targets are becoming the rule rather than the exception, and there is no going back, according to the chief executive officer of aluminium producer Norsk Hydro.

This includes China, which has significantly increased its efforts to tackle pollution from industries including aluminium smelting in recent months.

“A market without strict environmental standards, where industry is rewarded by lowering its cost at the expense of the environment, is history. Now, and even more so [in the future], you have a serious problem if you are a part of the problem and not a part of the solution,” Svein Richard Brandtzæg told Metal Bulletin on Wednesday August 22.

“This is what we see in China too, when people and authorities no longer accept poor air quality and pollution. So I am optimistic that more and more of the industry will have to take part in the race to produce at higher standards,” he said.

China’s moves to curtail aluminium smelting include launching policy initiatives to eliminate output without an operating license, or that creates pollution during the winter heating season.

Several millions of tonnes of production capacity were taken offline as a result, marking a step-change in the country’s approach that is the result of a number of influencing factors, notably a real desire to do something about China’s environmental problems.

Speaking during an exclusive interview ahead of Metal Bulletin’s 33rd International Aluminium Conference in Berlin on September 12-14, Brandtzæg said that as long as there is a level playing field in the market, stronger environmental requirements should not be seen as obstacles to industrial development.

“On the contrary, I believe – and experience – that an improved environmental and climate footprint is more and more valued not only by NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and governments, but also in the financial community and among industrial customers and end-consumers,” he added.

The Norwegian producer intends to become carbon-neutral from a lifecycle perspective by 2020. As part of this, it has launched two specific products whose low CO2 footprints have won third-party certification and which have market-leading high recycled content.

These are Hydro 4.0, which is an aluminium produced using hydro-electric power and with a maximum carbon footprint of 4.0kg of CO2 per kg of aluminium, and Hydro 75R, which is aluminium with a minimum of 75% post-consumer recycled content.

These products, Brandtzæg said, “serve customers demanding a world-class footprint, so we see strong environmental and climate performance as an opportunity where sustainability and business go hand in hand.”

New technology is playing a key role, particularly at the Karmøy technology pilot plant in Norway, where Hydro aims to industrialize the world’s most climate- and energy-efficient aluminium electrolysis technology.

All 60 electrolysis cells are now in operation at the pilot plant, which will use 15% less energy during production than the world average in aluminium production. The pilot plant will add 75,000 tonnes per year of aluminium production to the existing capacity at Karmøy of roughly 200,000 tpy.

Certifications such as the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) – which addresses the environmental, social and governance aspects of the entire aluminium value chain – also give sustainability a competitive edge, Brandtzæg said.

“Hydro has taken active part in developing the framework of ASI,” he added, “and will certainly work to certify Hydro plants throughout the value chain according to ASI standards.”