Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Stock dynamics and emission pathways of the global aluminium cycle


Climate change mitigation in the materials sector faces a twin challenge: satisfying rapidly rising global demand for materials while significantly curbing greenhouse-gas emissions1,2. Process efficiency improvement and recycling can contribute to reducing emissions per material output; however, long-term material demand and scrap availability for recycling depend fundamentally on the dynamics of societies’ stocks of products in use3,4,5,6, an issue that has been largely neglected in climate science. Here, we show that aluminium in-use stock patterns set essential boundary conditions for future emission pathways, which has significant implications for mitigation priority setting. If developing countries follow industrialized countries in their aluminium stock patterns, a 50% emission reduction by 2050 below 2000 levels cannot be reached even under very optimistic recycling and technology assumptions. The target can be reached only if future global per-capita aluminium stocks saturate at a level much lower than that in present major industrialized countries. As long as global in-use stocks are growing rapidly, radical new technologies in primary production (for example, inert anode and carbon capture and storage) have the greatest impact in emission reduction; however, their window of opportunity is closing once the stocks begin to saturate and the largest reduction potential shifts to post-consumer scrap recycling.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Global anthropogenic metallurgical aluminium cycle in 2009.
Figure 2: GHG emissions in all production stages along the global aluminium cycle in 2009.
Figure 3: Historic data and future scenarios for per-capita aluminium in-use stock.
Figure 4: GHG emission pathways and mitigation wedges of the global aluminium cycle across the nine dynamic stock scenarios.


  1. IPCC Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Metz, B., Davidson, O. R., Bosch, P. R., Dave, R. & Meyer, L. A.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  2. IEA Energy Technology Transitions for Industry: Strategies for the Next Industrial Revolution (The International Energy Agency (IEA), 2009).

  3. Müller, D. B., Wang, T., Duval, B. & Graedel, T. E. Exploring the engine of anthropogenic iron cycles. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 16111–16116 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Gordon, R. B., Bertram, M. & Graedel, T. E. Metal stocks and sustainability. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 1209–1214 (2006).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Müller, D. B., Wang, T. & Duval, B. Patterns of iron use in societal evolution. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 182–188 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Liu, G., Bangs, C. E. & Müller, D. B. Unearthing potentials for decarbonizing the U.S. aluminum cycle. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 9515–9522 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. UNFCCC The Cancun Agreements: Outcome of the Work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (CP16/CMP6) (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2011).

  8. USDOE US Energy Requirements for Aluminum Production: Historical Perspective, Theoretical Limits and Current Practices (US Department of Energy, 2007).

  9. Oliver, A. N. & Rothman, H. The value of recycling: A framework for analysis. Ind. Market Manag. 4, 133–141 (1975).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Schwarz, H. G., Briem, S. & Zapp, P. Future carbon dioxide, emissions in the global material flow of primary aluminium. Energy 26, 775–795 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Luo, Z. & Soria, A. Prospective Study of the World Aluminium Industry (Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2007).

  12. Menzie, B. W. D. et al. The Global Flow of Aluminum From 2006 Through 2025 73 (US Department of the Interior and US Geological Survey, 2010).

  13. Allwood, J. M., Cullen, J. M. & Milford, R. L. Options for achieving a 50% cut in industrial carbon emissions by 2050. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 1888–1894 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. GARC. Global Aluminium Recycling Model (Global Aluminium Recycling Committee, International Aluminium Institute, 2011).

  15. Hatayama, H., Daigo, I., Matsuno, Y. & Adachi, Y. Assessment of the recycling potential of aluminum in Japan, the United States, Europe and China. Mater. Trans. 50, 650–656 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Milford, R. L., Allwood, J. M. & Cullen, J. M. Assessing the potential of yield improvements, through process scrap reduction, for energy and CO2 abatement in the steel and aluminium sectors. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 55, 1185–1195 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Müller, D. B. Stock dynamics for forecasting material flows: Case study for housing in The Netherlands. Ecol. Econ. 59, 142–156 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Bader, H. P., Scheidegger, R., Wittmer, D. & Lichtensteiger, T. Copper flows in buildings, infrastructure and mobiles: A dynamic model and its application to Switzerland. Clean Technol. Environ. 13, 87–101 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Pauliuk, S., Wang, T. & Müller, D. Moving toward the circular economy: The role of stocks in the Chinese steel cycle. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 148–154 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Pacala, S. & Socolow, R. Stabilization wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305, 968–972 (2004).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Sinden, G. E., Peters, G. P., Minx, J. & Weber, C. L. International Carbon Flows: Aluminium (The Carbon Trust, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Norgate, T. & Jahanshahi, S Reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of primary metal production: Where should the focus be? Miner. Eng. 24, 1563–1570 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Das, S. & Green, J. Aluminum industry and climate change: Assessment and responses. JOM J. Min. Met. Mater. Sci. 62, 27–31 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Modaresi, R. & Müller, D. B. The role of automobiles for the future of aluminium recycling. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 8587–8594 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Van Renssen, S. Making more with less. Nature Clim. Change 1, 137–138 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Allwood, J. M. et al. Sustainable Materials: With Both Eyes Open (UIT, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Carruth, M. A., Allwood, J. M. & Moynihan, M. C. The technical potential for reducing metal requirements through lightweight product design. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 57, 48–60 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Heard, R., Hendrickson, C. & McMichael, F. C. Sustainable development and physical infrastructure materials. MRS Bull. 37, 389–394 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Schmidt, J., Helme, N. E. D., Lee, J. I. N. & Houdashelt, M. Sector-based approach to the post-2012 climate change policy architecture. Clim. Policy 8, 494–515 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. IAI Pioneering A Voluntary Global Industry Sectoral Approach (International Aluminium Institute, 2008).

Download references


We gratefully acknowledge G. Rombach from Norsk Hydro and C. Bayliss from the International Aluminium Institute for valuable inputs with the GARC model and S. Pauliuk from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology for help with programming techniques.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



D.B.M. and G.L. designed the research; C.E.B. and G.L. collected the data and built the model; all authors conducted the analysis, discussed the results and wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Gang Liu or Daniel B. Müller.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1578 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Liu, G., Bangs, C. & Müller, D. Stock dynamics and emission pathways of the global aluminium cycle. Nature Clim Change 3, 338–342 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing