‘Conscious uncoupling’ was a rather unusual term coined in the celebrity world to explain something all too familiar – divorce.  Whereas decoupling in the economic sense is a more prosaic term for something that is far from familiar. Managing to break the link between “environmental bads” and “economic goods” and decouple environmental pressures from economic growth has been one of the elusive main objectives of environmental policy for decades.

I guess what unites these two terms is the striving for an intended outcome, and as we recently passed World Environment Day, the global aluminium industry in the shape of the International Aluminium Institute confirmed that for the first time a new trend is emerging of increasing production and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in the aluminium sector. Decoupling.  Aluminium still accounts for a mind boggling 1.11 giga-tonnes CO2e per annum, or around 2% of global human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, but as a key enabler to reduce emissions in other sectors like automotive, transport, building & construction, and food & drink packaging – making this sector more ‘sustainable’ is a critical path to be followed. For these reasons demand for aluminium is set to grow 40% by 2030 as economies make the long-promised green and digital transitions.

Aluminium is used in all these industries because it’s lightweight, has a high strength-to-weight ratio and is good at conducting electricity and heat, and also because its highly recyclable. At Novelis as the largest, most technologically advanced aluminum recycler in the world, we keep pushing boundaries. For example in financial year 2023 we recorded a 14% reduction in our company’s absolute carbon emissions at the same time reporting a 17% reduction in carbon emissions intensity. As we look ahead, later this year our Warrington can-to-can recycling plant will be one of the first in the world to trial the use of hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas in our recycling furnaces. If successful, this has the potential to open up new opportunities for further decarbonisation within the aluminium sector.

The reduction of these direct emissions is important, but so too, is the constant supply of high-quality aluminium scrap, as without that feedstock,  recycling furnaces, even if low carbon-fuelled will remain ineffective. We need to move the needle ever further towards full circularity. Whilst much is made of the energy saving benefits of aluminium recycling (95% less than for primary produced material) the benefits to society from using less primary resources manifest themselves in differing ways – where for example the very large energy consumed to make primary aluminium can instead be switched off or diverted to use for something more productive like food production, and the mining and refining avoided can mean less ecosystem impacts around the world. So securing a steady supply of secondary aluminium remains a critical part of the system, be it a used drinks can or an end of life car. The evolving UK resources sector remains a good place for aluminium circularity and hopefully either through the current Extended Producer Responsibility or preferably a future Deposit Return Scheme(s), will continue to thrive.

Then the holy grail of a low to zero carbon fuel for recycling operations and an endlessly recyclable material like aluminium can give hope that the decoupling of economic activity from environmental degradation can become a reality and that maybe at last industry is beginning to achieve that long sought after goal – conscious uncoupling. Something Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin achieved in the flick of a keyboard through a social media posting many years ago!