Polluting metals may be greener than you think, Citigroup says

Steel mill. (Reference image by Tata66, Pixabay).

Metals — even the dirtiest old-world varieties like steel — can already be considered green if their contribution to climate change mitigation is taken into account, according to a Citigroup Inc. report.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, analysts including Max Layton found that metals like copper, nickel, aluminum and steel can drive down global-warming gases given how much of them will be used to build the wind turbines, electric vehicles and carbon capture technologies needed to electrify economies.

The research offers producers grappling with cleaning up their supply chains another way to retain the growing number of investors with an environmental and social bent. That’s not to say the industry’s decarbonizing efforts should wane, Layton said.

“It’s a delicate subject,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The results here are factual, but they are narrow in their assessment of the impact on the environment.”

In a rapid electrification scenario, Citigroup found that every metric ton of the 87 billion tons of metal to be used over the next 30 years reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of about 9 tons. That suggests that pollution-fighting efforts to reduce metal production may actually hurt climate change mitigation. 

“It is possible to decarbonize the planet using less metals, but that would require power consumption and GDP growth to go down,” Layton said.

(By James Attwood and Yvonne Yue Li)

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