EU climate official: Innovation fund will help decarbonise metals production

Mauro Petriccione is director general at the European Commission's department for climate action (DG CLIMA) [© European Union 2015 - Source : EP]

This article is part of our special report Aluminium in a low-carbon world.

The production of non-ferrous metals such as aluminium is very energy-intensive, but new technologies are being developed to decarbonise the process and the European Commission is ready to finance them, says Mauro Petriccione.

Mauro Petriccione is Director-General of the European Commission’s climate department. EURACTIV’s Dave Keating asked him how the EU can help metals producers decarbonise their production processes.

The EU has a goal of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050, pending approval by member states. In order to meet that goal, is Europe going to have to change the way it uses and produces materials like aluminium, steel and glass?

The European Commission’s vision for a climate-neutral economy by 2050 sets out an ambitious but achievable pathway for the EU to become the first major global economy to achieve climate neutrality. This objective – which has already been endorsed by a large majority of the Member States – brings many opportunities but also far-reaching challenges.

One of the key questions is how to address greenhouse gas emissions from our energy intensive industries while maintaining and enhancing our economic competitiveness.

Significant efforts have already been made, thanks to the EU emissions trading system as a market-based driver providing incentives to cut emissions. In fact, Europe’s industry is highly efficient and maintaining its competitiveness goes hand in hand with efficient use of resources and the development of a circular economy. EU companies need to be empowered with a first-mover advantage to become global leaders in clean innovative technologies.

To see the reductions needed to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050, innovation is key. Many of the technologies needed to further cut emissions in sectors such as steel, cement and chemicals already exist, but will need to demonstrate that they can work at scale.

Research and development will reduce costs of breakthrough technologies and help develop new products and solutions. With recycling practices on the rise, the production of many industrial goods such as steel, glass and plastics will become more resource-efficient and less emission-intensive, as energy needs decrease further. New materials and ways of using existing materials will also play an important role.

For heavy industry, becoming greenhouse gas emissions-free will often mean significantly modernising existing installations or completely replacing them. This investment will increase the competitiveness of EU industry and its presence in the global economy as it becomes less dependent on carbon. Digitalisation and automation are effective short-term ways of increasing competitiveness, while a combination of electrification, increased use of hydrogen, biomass and renewable synthetic gas can reduce energy-related emissions in industrial goods production. Carbon Capture and Storage and Carbon Capture and Utilisation can help tackle emissions that prove impossible to eliminate.

Circular economy approaches are undoubtedly going to play a major role. Increasing the amount of materials that are reclaimed and enter back into the value chain as raw materials will not only have a considerable impact on reducing our emissions, but also allow us to become less dependent on external supplies of scarce raw materials.

Aluminium is a light material that is reusable. How can its use help in decarbonisation?

Non-ferrous metals, such as aluminium, can play a key role in the EU’s transition to a climate-neutral economy by 2050. They are essential to low-carbon transport, renewable energy generation, transmission and consumption, zero-energy buildings and resource-efficient packaging. They are endlessly recyclable and are fundamental to the circular economy, ensuring ongoing access to raw materials into the future.

Non-ferrous metals like aluminium can have numerous applications in a sustainable future, thus offering significant opportunities for material substitution for example in the energy sector, transport and buildings.

The heavy energy use of the production process for aluminium has been criticised. What more can be done to reduce CO2 emissions at source for these plants, rather than relying on decarbonisation of the electricity grid powering the plants?

The production of non-ferrous metals, including aluminium, is indeed very energy- and, in particular, electricity-intensive. Apart from ensuring that it is produced with green electricity, there are many more clean innovative technologies that can be deployed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the sector.

Switching fuel or reaction agents could be a way forward. Low emission electrolysis, inert anodes, wettable cathodes, magnetic billet heating and improved waste heat recovery are highly innovative, energy-efficient and low-carbon technologies fit for the aluminium industry.

Other methods could include the development of new, high performing alloys and compounds, establishing new circular value chains, reducing losses of aluminium and avoiding the need for downcycling, researching technologies for carbon capture and use, and creating a market for green products.

We are aware that the deployment of such technologies requires significant investments, which is why the EU is also providing the means to do so. The Innovation Fund, for instance, is one of the first EU funding instruments to tangibly support the vision of a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. It will pool together some €10 billion – depending on the carbon price – from the auctioning of 450 million allowances from 2020 to 2030, as well as any unspent funds from the current NER300 programme.

The fund will be one of the world’s largest financing programmes for demonstration of innovative low-carbon technologies, helping to drive these technologies to the market. It is open to innovative low-carbon technologies and processes in energy intensive industries – such as aluminium – including products substituting carbon intensive ones, carbon capture and utilisation, construction and operation of carbon capture and storage, innovative renewable energy generation and energy storage. The first call for proposals is planned for 2020 and will be followed by regular calls until 2030.

Will the ETS continue to serve as the main policy tool to motivate emissions-intensive industries to put in place cleaner production practices? What other tools are being considered?

The EU ETS remains a key policy tool for the cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the EU’s 2030 policy framework for climate and energy, the strengthened ETS is triggering a stronger carbon price signal to encourage low carbon investment decisions in our power sector and industry. The ETS is also providing the revenues for the new Innovation Fund as well as the Modernisation Fund.

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