One of the biggest social challenges facing the authorities in Beijing is that of environmental pollution. It’s not just the western media that is fixated by measures of particulate matter and images of impenetrable smog in Beijing, the general population has been moved to outright demonstration and the impact on the health of those living in the affected areas is an extremely serious issue causing widespread discontent. Beijing knows it must come to grips with this problem. Drastic action is required, and recent reports suggest the authorities are finally considering just that.
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According to CRU Group, the Chinese Ministry of environmental protection is consulting industry groups such as the China Nonferrous Industry Association about a proposal to shut down 30% of the aluminum smelting capacity and 50% of alumina refining capacity during the big winter heating period from November to March in an effort to reduce coal-fired power consumption. Rumous of this proposal contributed to recent rises in aluminum prices even though the impact would not be felt before the end of 2017 and there is still considerable debate on how viable such a policy would-be.
The provinces in question are Shandong, Shanxi, Hebei and Henan, home to a significant portion of China’s aluminum smelting and alumina refining capacity. According to an article by Aluminum Insider, Shandong produces 11 million metric tons of aluminum per year, Henan turns out 3.8 mmt, Shanxi is good for 1 mmt, while Hebei puts out 100,000 mt a year. Those four provinces account for 37% of the country’s total output of aluminum. Shandong refines 23.5 mmt of alumina per year, Henan produces 12.6 mmt, and Shanxi produces 20 mmt each year, combining to produce around 78% of the country’s total alumina output.
Clearly, these are major industries spread across both the state and private sector and contribute a significant part of state-level tax revenues and employment. In addition, if a substantial part of the alumina output were temporarily curtailed, it would have major implications for those smelters in other regions that rely on supplies from the idled refiners, probably forcing the country to import up to 650,000 mt of alumina from abroad.
The Case for Idling
The proposal is for idling of 30% of approximately 11 mmt per year of aluminum smelting capacity in these provinces from November to March each year. According to CRU, this would result in a 1.6 mmt impact in 2018, the first full year of the policy. It would also make greenfield and brownfield expansions in Shanxi and Shandong less likely, the firm says.
What is not clear, though, is the extent to which smelters in other regions such as Xinjiang would simply accelerate the ramp up of planned expansion. China is said by CRU to have some 3 mmt of excess capacity so these closures would not, on that basis alone, bring the domestic market into balance but it is far from clear whether the market is suffering from that level of excess or whether smelters are operating at sub-optimal capacity.
Any under-utilized capacity is likely to be at older smelters which have been under pressure to close on environmental grounds for the last couple of years or have already been idled due to their too-high cost of production compared to new state-of-the-art, low-cost smelters in regions like Xinjiang.
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Will Beijing implement such a radical plan? It did for coal last year, closing mines that resulted in the loss of 10% of national production, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility in spite of the economic consequences. Political priorities in the form of combating pollution could trump economic priorities if Beijing considers social unrest to be a serious enough threat. Watch this space.