The future of the material is bright, says Rob van Gils, CEO of Hammerer Aluminium. Provided that politics protects competitiveness and guarantees planning security – and the industry itself strictly avoids any hint of greenwashing.
"Aluminum is an enabler for the Green Deal"
ALUMINIUM: Mr. van Gils, the aluminum industry attests itself a pretty bright future. Do you share this optimism?
Rob van Gils: Absolutely. The conditions have changed completely. Particularly with the Green Deal, it has become clear to everyone that there is no way around the shift in the automotive industry towards electromobility. Lightweight construction used to be an issue only in the absolute premium segment, but now there is huge potential here. And thanks also to the properties associated with recycling, our material is gaining in importance in the very long term.
Which moves the focus away from manufacturing.
van Gils: That's right, aluminum only really comes into its own if it is produced with green electricity. Otherwise, the first cycle represents exactly what we used to get beaten up for in the past. The primary aluminium production is very energy-intensive, but aluminum has an outstanding ability to be recycled over and over again - without compromising quality and using only about five percent of the energy needed to produce primary aluminum. Looking at Circularity makes us an enabler for the challenges of the Green Deal.
How are these issues reflected in your product development?
van Gils: We're constantly coming up with new ideas, and we're noticing it on the sales side, too: we've never had so many lightweight construction projects in the pipeline as we do at the moment. And the nice thing about it is that sustainability is always an element in every development.
With your customers, too? Don't sustainable products traditionally fail because of the higher costs?
van Gils: Of course, price remains a difficult component in the discussion. However, it is nice to see that more and more customers are authentically interested in sustainable ideas and want to know everything about them. But I would also like to emphasize: All this doesn't cost the earth! As we know, our prices have a high raw material-driven component. If the cost of sustainability in the low single-digit percentage range of total costs is said to be too high, we can stop right there.
Rob van Gils is CEO & Managing Partner of HAI Group. After taking over responsibility as Group CEO Rob has significantly changed the portfolio of HAI group over the last years. Supported by consequent investments in back- and forward integration HAI today covers the whole value chain from recycling, billet production, extrusions and aluminium components for B&C, Industrial Applications and Transportation Industry. Prior to his role as CEO he held several management positions within HAI and AMAG resulting in 20 years of experience in the aluminium industry. Rob holds a degree in mechanical engineering and a Master of Business Administration.
Could it be that it has also become increasingly difficult for companies to engage in greenwashing?
van Gils: Yes, thank god! The time when people were satisfied with a few nice green marketing slides is over. The aluminum industry took a proactive approach to this issue long before the Green Deal. You can't implement this in a few months, you have to do a lot of homework in order to withstand any kind of scrutiny. And this is exactly what I keep warning against, also in my role as Chairman of the Extrusion Division at European Aluminium: the last thing that should happen now is that aluminum, despite its outstanding properties, is confronted with greenwashing because one or the other does not seriously implement the measures. All the relevant players agree on this: absolute transparency is needed to avoid even the beginnings of such a discussion.
Speaking of European Aluminum, how do you assess current industrial policy against the background of the quite clearly defined and ambitious climate targets?
van Gils: I see the industry's commitment to the climate targets as an absolute opportunity - but only if two factors are in place: On the one hand, we need the much-stressed level playing field. Europe is playing a pioneering role; once again, we are taking on more than anyone else. Then we also have to ensure that companies remain competitive. For example, by ensuring that no material from outside enters our markets that does not meet the requirements.
That's exactly what CBAM is trying to do ...
van Gils: ... and the motivation behind it is also a good one: anyone who wants to import something that doesn't meet the sustainability standard that we presuppose has to pay to compensate for it. This eliminates his advantage, and our companies are protected. But we need to look into the details, the issue is really extremely complex when you look at it across the entire value chain. That's why there should be no quick fixes here.
Can you give me an example where we need to look into the details?
van Gils: For example, the question of how "sustainability" is actually measured. If it's just a question of the carbon footprint, Chinese companies have an easy game: around ten percent of China's aluminum production is green, but if they allocate this aluminum for export, the dirty aluminum stays in China, and the carbon footprint of our planet doesn't change at all.
van Gils: You would have to use average values from the regions of the world as a basis. Otherwise, we will end up with cherry picking, with classic greenwashing. The Chinese would do that without batting an eye. And European productions with much better imprints would be cannibalized.
"The last thing that should happen now is that aluminum, despite its outstanding properties, is confronted with greenwashing because one or the other does not seriously implement the measures."
You mentioned another decisive factor.
van Gils: Ultimately, we're talking about an energy transition here. And if we have enough green energy available, the industry will be able to manage this change. But for that, we need planning certainty. And that's where I still see gaps. We all agree that we want the change, and Europe is - once again - forging ahead. Politicians must now quickly say: This is what we are offering you in terms of support, in terms of planning security, so that you can also implement this without losing your competitiveness. And, of course, this must also be harmonized within the EU: These striking differences between the locations must no longer exist in the future.
Is something like CBAM sustainable as a purely European project?
van Gils: I have my reservations about that, too. In my opinion, we must at least have our Western friends on board. We won't be able to do that so quickly with the Chinese.
Do you have the feeling that politicians are listening to you?
van Gils: Yes, we can place our issues with the European Commission. I have the feeling that the current Commission is engaging more intensively with industry than this was previously the case. One positive signal, for example, was that the Commission implemented punitive tariffs on products from China when it became clear that the Chinese were not living up to the level playing field in the extrusion sector.
Aluminum often makes it into the mass media in connection with environmental sins. How can you convey the other story?
van Gils: By telling it again and again. It's up to us to do that. At some point, the industry will have reached such a maturity that we will hardly need to produce any new aluminum. That's the message. The Green Deal is, after all, a generational deal; we're talking about 200 or 300 years. If we look at it that way, the picture for aluminum looks excellent. We have to get this message out there - backed up with facts, seriously and without any hint of greenwashing. Because we don't need that.
The interview was conducted by Bernhard Fragner.
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September 28th–29th, 2021
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