Oct 08 2007

Behind the Shining: Aluminum’s Dark Side

Hydro power

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions from smelters and captive fossil

fuel-fired power plants, the aluminum industry further contributes to

global warming through its heavy usage of hydroelectric power. In tropical

countries, where smelters have congregated around great dams, massive

amounts of vegetation decay in flooded forests. The decaying organic matter

produces huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. In Brazil, one

scientist calculated that a dam over a 50-year period would produce as much

greenhouse gas as a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.

(Pratap Chatterjee, “Dams a major source of global warming say scientists,”

Inter Press Service, Nov. 29, 1995)

Aluminum smelters consume over half of the power generated from the Tucurui

reservoir in northern Brazil. The reservoir demonstrated substantial, but

highly variable, greenhouse gas emissions in a recent two year period

studied by the World Commission on Dams. In 1998, it emitted 76.4 tons of

methane and 3,808 tons of carbons dioxide per square kilometer per year.

The next year, these figures dropped to 5.33 and 2,378 tons, respectively.

Estimated emissions for the 2,600 kilometer reservoir totaled 198,640 tons

of methane and 6,182,800 tons of carbon dioxide in 1998.

The WCD concluded that “there is no agreement on whether the net greenhouse

emissions from the reservoir, spillway, and turbines are offset by the

saving in emission from fossil fuel sources made possible by the large

amount of power produced by Tucurui.” (World Commission on Dams, “The

Report of the World Commission on Dams,” 2000, p. 77, 121, 122)

Aluminum industry lobbying

In 1997, 39 heavily industrialized countries, collectively called “Annex B”

countries, committed to reduce greenhouse gases under the terms of the

Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate

Change. The countries agreed to restrict their emissions over the period

2008-2012 to between 92-110 percent of 1990 levels. For emissions of PFCs,

hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride, countries may set the

baseline date at 1995.

The aluminum industry is fighting governmental actions to restrict their

greenhouse gas emissions. In 1999, the Aluminium Federation in the U.K.

worked against a Climate Change levy. According to Mining Annual Review,

“the primary smelting industry was exempted and some other modifications

were made, but the Aluminium Federation said that the bill would hurt

Britain’s non-primary aluminium industry and that they would prefer a levy,

such as in the Netherlands, based on deviation from benchmarked best

practices.” (Stephen Johnston, “Aluminium,” Mining Annual Review, March


In Europe, seven producers — Alcoa, Alcan, alusuisse (now part of Alcan),

Hoogovens (now part of Corus), Hydro, Pechiney, and VAW — launched an

“Aluminium for Future Generations” initiative in 1998. In meetings with

government officials, parliamentarians, academic institutions, and

non-governmental organizations, the aluminum alliance emphasizes the need

for voluntary, not mandatory, action. “In many countries across Europe the

industry has entered into a range of national voluntary agreements to

reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since it believes that the reduction of

emissions can best be achieved through a combination of voluntary

agreements and market-based flexible mechanisms,” reads the alliance’s

website. “The aluminium industry is particularly concerned to adopt a

global approach to the issue of climate change and has therefore been

involved in discussions regarding implementation of the Kyoto Protocol at

international level, through the International Primary Aluminium

Institute.” (Aluminium for Future Generations at


In the United States, aluminum companies are integral members of the Global

Climate Coalition, an industrial lobby credited with derailing U.S.

activism on the issue. Members include Kaiser and The Aluminum Association,

which is a U.S. lobbying group whose members include Alcoa, Alcan, Hydro,

Kaiser, Ormet, Pechiney, VAW, and dozens of other companies. (Boycott

Global Climate Coalition Companies (GCC) at

http://www.islandpress.org/earthday/gcc.html; The Aluminum Association at


In Australia, David Coutts, executive director of the Australian Aluminium

Council outlined the industry’s case at a government-sponsored conference

on climate change in 1999. “Greenhouse gas levels are still well within

historical boundaries and likely to remain there for a considerable time,”

he said. “The science of how these rising levels will effect the climate is

still far from clear and high priority needs to be given to improving that

knowledge so we can best judge how to act.”

Coutts praised the government for standing by the industry during Kyoto

negotiations. To its great credit the Australian Government understood

these messages and took a firm position to Kyoto,” he said. “Against all

the odds, a relatively sensible outcome was achieved at Kyoto. The

Australian negotiating team played a key role in this outcome and the

resources sector gave them the highest praise for this achievement. The

protocol is not going to immediately solve the problem of rising greenhouse

gas levels but at least it has put in place a process to start doing

something realistic about it.”

He emphasized the importance of the aluminum industry to Australia’s

economy. “If a favorable investment climate for Australia is maintained

then the alumina and aluminium metal sectors could easily grow by more than

30% in the period through to 2020,” he predicted. “The aluminium industry

is already Australia’s second largest export industry, with exports

predicted to be well over $5 billion in 1997/98. The industry is the world

leader in bauxite and alumina and the third largest metal exporter-after

Russia and Canada-and we are not all that far behind them with the latest

expansions at Boyne Island and Tomago.

“This expansion will be difficult to achieve if the competitiveness of

Australia is eroded. It depends on competitive supplies of raw materials

and world competitive energy, especially electricity. Australia is

currently at the lower end, on average, of the smelter cost curve and is

the world’s most efficient region when it comes to converting electricity

into aluminium. These achievements have been hard won and could be all too

easily eroded,” he continued.

“If we put the expansion of the aluminium industry at threat in Australia

by forcing energy costs up, then new investment will be in countries such

as India and China; probably operated less efficiently than in Australia;

and more than likely using Australian coal for electricity generation.

That won’t help the greenhouse global problem but it surely will harm the

Australian economy,” Coutts concluded. (David Coutts, “Greenhouse beyond

Kyoto issues, opportunities and challenges: The resources industries

perspective,” March 31, 1998, at


Annex B countries host about 70 percent of world aluminum capacity, which

is not addressed at all under the current Protocol

In 1997, an article in The Guardian echoed Coutts’ claim that the

Australian “government has presented industry lobby interests as synonymous

with the national interest. The green stance of the public has been

systematically eroded through a well-orchestrated campaign to portray

global warming as little more than a theory that scientists can’t agree on.

Their strategy was aimed at crippling the impetus for government action to

solve these problems because such action might adversely affect corporate

profits.” (Sharon Beder, Paul Brown and John Vidal, ‘Who Killed Kyoto?’,

The Guardian, Oct. 29, 1997)

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