Amid chaos and uncertainty, Canada has an opportunity for industrial leadership
Jakob Stausholm, Chief Executive of Rio Tinto
Last updated: 14 October, 2022
This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail.
The overriding message I took from joining leaders recently at the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week in New York was a growing sense of urgency and realisation that our world is changing. Addressing climate change when the planet’s population is approaching eight billion people, all with the expectation of a decent quality of life, has become an existential challenge. At the same time, growing geopolitical tensions mean countries have become much more focused on the importance of secure supply chains.
The critical minerals needed to change the world’s energy and manufacturing systems are at the heart of both trends. This is why I was particularly heartened to join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne on Tuesday at our Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (RTFT) metallurgical complex in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, to announce a strategic partnership that can contribute to Canada’s leadership on critical minerals supply and climate change.
We are investing together in innovations aimed at addressing these two megatrends: to decarbonise our operations at RTFT, which has substantial emissions, and to develop new plants to extract critical minerals. These facilities will become a strong and secure supply source for manufacturers in Canada and the United States for low-carbon titanium and steel, scandium and lithium – metals and minerals needed for a range of industries, including electric vehicles and aerospace.
RTFT was built in the 1950s, in the post-war period when Western countries industrialised and created prosperity for citizens. It is part of what made Canada a dream when I grew up in Europe. The last few decades of globalisation has resulted in tough competition from developing nations and many industrial sites in the Western world have closed. Yet, RTFT has survived. Like Rio Tinto’s other industrial complexes supplying aluminium, copper, titanium and iron ore facilities across Canada and the United States, it stands as an irreplaceable asset for the North American manufacturing sector, built on substantial investments over time. The future is not just about decarbonisation and a circular economy, but also about durability. We will be investing in innovative and more sustainable industrial processes to position the site for the future. This is how we are looking at our businesses across the country.
Visiting RTFT makes it clear that developing critical minerals supply is less about where minerals are found, and more about having access to processing facilities. And above all, it’s about talented and experienced people who are able to invent new ways of extracting those minerals. RTFT has world-class R&D capabilities, decades in the making, that saw it recently become North America’s first producer of scandium, a key input for industries such as aerospace. This capacity in Canada is a platform on which to continue building climate leadership.
The Government of Canada is already partnering with us on aluminium, alongside Alcoa, Apple and the Government of Quebec, to develop the breakthrough zero-carbon ELYSISTM smelting technology – a revolutionary change in the 130-year-old process used to make aluminium. Combined with the renewable hydroelectricity that powers our smelters here in Canada, it holds the promise of carbon-free aluminium production.
Both of these partnerships, at RTFT and on ELYSIS, are aimed at driving not just technical innovation but also the industrial application of solutions. This is exactly the approach we need to see fostered and replicated across sectors and through supply chains. Canada’s abundant mineral resources, eminent research and development facilities, skilled work force, renewable hydroelectricity, quality of life, and partnership-oriented governments give it tremendous advantages over other jurisdictions. This presents the opportunity to lead climate action and provides a unique platform for the creation of jobs, economic investment and industry to support the energy transition and build communities.
What more can Canada do to maximise its impact? Continuing to encourage and attract foreign direct investment will always be key to help promote supply chain enhancement, research, and innovation. As will nurturing the skilled and talented work force to support a vital green supply chain, through world-class postsecondary educational institutions and immigration. And, with an eye to the investment now under way in the United States, Canada can drive even further productivity, economic growth, and sustain the country’s high quality of life through its own infrastructure spending.