Skip to main content

It sure looked to be aluminum, that shiny counter from behind which Tom and Dick - the new/old team running Rio Tinto Alcan - held court last week to celebrate Canada's biggest foreign takeover yet. But upon closer inspection, and a few kicks, we can safely say it wasn't made of metal.

Yes, appearances can be deceiving, and the faux aluminum stage prop wasn't the only illusion that was shattered at this coming out. Alcan's carefully managed image as one of the good guys in the epic battle to bring business onside on climate change also took it in the chin.

Alcan chief executive officer Dick Evans and his new boss, London-based Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese, still look good compared with the ostriches in the oil patch. But they lost serious brownie points with their jeremiad against hard, government-imposed targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Story continues below advertisement

"If you look at absolute reductions as a solution, the likely consequence is that you will drive the growth of aluminum production offshore," Mr. Evans said.

"We feel strongly that intensity-based targets are the most effective means to get [to]the ultimate end of absolute greenhouse gas emissions."

With this statement, Mr. Evans exposed Alcan's "green" image makeover for what it is: A concerted effort to shape government policy and public opinion, and, hence, minimize legislative limits on its activities.

Not long ago, Mr. Evans was sounding more like Al Gore than the Goracle himself. In a slide presentation in February, he asked: "How many more glaciers like this one on Mount Kilimanjaro can we look at without beginning to lose our sensitivity to these images?"

Alcan is at the forefront of every business coalition pressing governments to act on emissions. It's a charter member of the United States Climate Action Partnership, calling on the U.S. administration "to quickly enact strong national legislation to achieve significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions."

No one doubts Mr. Evans is sincere when he says climate change "is something we can afford to put on ice no longer." Besides, he's got a hybrid-driving daughter in San Francisco to keep him honest.

But simple math shows that intensity targets - reducing the amount of GHG emissions per unit of, in this case, aluminum - will not lead to a reduction in overall emissions when output is growing rapidly.

Story continues below advertisement

Alcan has reduced its GHG intensity by a quarter since 1990, largely as a result of closing antiquated smelters and replacing them with ones that run on the energy-efficient technology it acquired with its 2003 takeover of France's Pechiney. It has committed to a further reduction in emissions intensity of 10 per cent by 2010.

This is even less ambitious than the targets in the Harper government's plan, released last April, to require a 6-per-cent annual reduction in emissions intensity between 2008 and 2010 and 2 per cent annually after that.

Of course, a distinction must be made between Alcan's targets - which apply to its worldwide operations - and Ottawa's Canada-only plan. With several new smelters in the pipeline, Alcan's global emissions, which stood at 20.3 million tonnes in 2006, are set to rise sharply in coming years. What's more, its indirect emissions (11.6 million tonnes in 2006) will grow even faster, since its new smelters in the Middle East and Africa will use electricity generated from fossil fuels.

In Canada, Alcan's emissions total 4.3 million tonnes. But it could reduce its carbon footprint with little difficulty. The proposed modernization of its Kitimat, B.C., smelter - which is still a long shot, mind you - would see emissions there drop to 800,000 tonnes from 1.3 million tonnes. And the slated closing of two old smelters in Quebec will bring the total down even further.

Absolute emissions reduction targets might give Alcan an excuse to delay the expansion of its Alma, Que., smelter - an investment that is implied in the company's commitment to inject $1.8-billion into the Saguenay region by 2015. But assuming a viable emissions trading scheme accompanied any absolute targets, meeting the latter would not be unduly onerous for Alcan.

It's another matter for Rio Tinto. Excluding Alcan, it produces 2.5 million tonnes of GHG in this country, with more than one million tonnes coming from its QIT Fer et Titane smelter in Quebec, which makes titanium dioxide.

Story continues below advertisement

A 40-per-cent expansion in capacity to 350,000 tonnes is under way at QIT, one that will accordingly increase its carbon footprint.

Mr. Albanese says he's onside when it comes to solving the climate change conundrum, citing a carbon sequestration pilot project being led by Rio Tinto and BP.

But if even enlightened business leaders like him and Mr. Evans can't commit to any thing harder than modest intensity targets, it's not a hopeful sign for those Kilimanjaro glaciers.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies