The Northwest has seen a precipitous decline in its aluminum industry,* which was once responsible for roughly 4 percent of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions (and as much as 7 percent in Washington, where most of the smelters are located).
And the industry’s decline has been mirrored by a slide in industrial electricity sales because smelters are massive energy hogs.
A blow for workers, but a bonus for our region’s climate impact and a step towards a more sustainable economy… right?
Well, maybe not.
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While the Northwest has been shifting its economy toward greener pastures, global aluminum production which emits greenhouse perfluorocarbons (PFC’s)–the most powerful and longest-lived greenhouse gas—is still on the rise.
Northwesterners still build Boeing jets, guzzle pop from cans, and construct aluminum-sided buildings. So we haven’t stopped using aluminum; we’re just buying it from farther away. In fact, apparent aluminum consumption grew about 1 percent in the US from 1997 to 2005, even while the Northwest’s 10 aluminum smelters went dark.
So the region has lost jobs. And while closing the smelters may have improved local environmental problems, we’ve likely made little global progress on emissions.
I don’t mean to get you down. Greening the local economy is vital; the transition should start here. But before we get too excited about our progress, we should remember the power of our consumption to drive environmentally harmful industries—even when we drive them elsewhere.
*Aluminum guru Eric de Place notes an irony: when the aluminum plants closed in 2001, the region actually reduced its greenhouse gas emissions. But the closures were brought on by a drought that was very similar to what scientists believe will happen in the Northwest as a result of climate change.