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Zinc: The Essential, Sustainable, and Versatile Metal

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The following content is sponsored by Trilogy Metals.

Uses of zinc in the modern economy

What would the world be like without zinc?

Long-running TV show The Simpsons showed us one depiction what this could look like—but in order to truly gauge the impact of the metal on our lives, we need a better understanding of the uses of zinc and its role in modern life.

Zinc’s Role in Modern Life

Zinc is a naturally occurring mineral that is present all around us: from our bodies, foods, and medicines to the buildings we live and work in. Despite this, very few people actually know how it gets there.

This infographic comes to us from Trilogy Metals and looks at the widespread uses of zinc in the modern economy, from construction and infrastructure to health, farming, and green energy.

The Zinc Supply Chain

Zinc is the fourth most used metal in the world behind iron, aluminum, and copper.

Before zinc makes it into its various applications, miners have to extract the metal from the ground. So which countries are the top producers of zinc?

CountryMined Zinc Production (2019, metric tons)Share of World Production (2019)
China4,300,00033%
Peru1,400,00011%
Australia1,300,00010%
Total7,000,00054%

China, Peru, and Australia account for 7 million tons or 54% of the world’s zinc production. Although the U.S. is among the world’s top five zinc producers, it only produced 780,000 metric tons of the silvery metal in 2019—roughly one-fifth of China’s zinc production.

We don’t always use zinc in its raw, metallic form; it is often refined and processed first.

The United States is lagging in the production of refined zinc, with a net import reliance of 87%. As the demand for zinc rises, local sources of mined and refined zinc will be valuable for import-reliant countries like the U.S.

But where does the demand for zinc come from, and what makes it so valuable?

Zinc Strengthens: Infrastructure and Alloys

Zinc is also referred to as the “galvanizing metal” for its role in protecting steel. In fact, galvanizing accounts for around 50% of total annual zinc usage.

Galvanizing with zinc improves steel in various ways:

  • Strength
    Adding zinc as a protective layer provides steel with higher impact strength
  • Longevity
    The zinc coating on galvanized steel lasts around 50 years, allowing structures made from steel to last longer
  • Corrosion-resistance
    Zinc acts as a sacrificial coating for the underlying steel, protecting it from corrosion and rust

From steel-frame buildings and bridges to furniture and automotive body parts, galvanized steel plays a critical role in building sustainable infrastructure.

According to a study by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers, corrosion costs the world $2.5 trillion annually. Given that only 6% of all steel produced annually is galvanized, increasing the use of zinc-coated steel could potentially reduce this economic impact.

Zinc in Alloys

Besides galvanizing, alloying is one of the most common uses of zinc. Zinc’s ability to provide other metals with strength and corrosion-resistance makes it an effective alloying material.

Around 25% of all zinc is used in alloys to create metals such as brass, which are commonly found in household fixtures, plumbing fittings, electronic devices, and musical instruments. Additionally, zinc alloys have a range of engineering applications, thanks to their rigidity, strength, and conductivity.

Zinc Improves: Health and Productivity

Zinc is not only a natural part of our body but also a critical nutrient for our immune systems.

The UN has labeled zinc a “life-saving commodity”—increased access to zinc could prevent 200,000 childhood deaths annually. Zinc is an essential nutrient for various reasons:

  • Helps fight infections
  • Vital for taste and smell
  • Enhances memory and thinking

Furthermore, zinc oxide, a compound produced by oxidizing metallic zinc, is a key ingredient in various health and medicinal products including cosmetics, food additives, and anti-fungal creams.

Zinc in Crops

Besides its critical role in the human body, zinc is also an essential micronutrient for plants.

When farmers add zinc to soils in the form of zinc oxide, it helps their crops resist tough conditions such as drought, salinity, and heat. A stable supply of zinc can also help crops reach higher productivity and yield levels.

As the global population grows, crop productivity will be important in addressing the higher demand for food. Zinc has an essential role to play in making crops resilient and more productive.

Zinc Supports: The Clean Energy Transition

The transition to a low-carbon, clean energy future will be mineral intensive—and zinc is playing a key role in boosting this transition.

Zinc-air batteries are quickly emerging as an efficient clean energy-storage solution that can provide renewable electricity in remote regions. Three factors make zinc-air batteries an integral part of the clean energy transition:

  • Efficient for storing non-constant renewable energy
  • Affordable because of their use of zinc
  • High energy density

In fact, NantEnergy’s zinc-air energy storage systems have already made a significant impact on sustainability.

  • Avoided 50,000 tons of CO2 emissions
  • Reduced 4 million liters of diesel fuel use
  • Provided 200,000 people with access to power

Additionally, zinc protects the steel used to build renewable energy infrastructure. Offshore wind masts are made from zinc thermal sprayed steel to prevent corrosion, and solar PV panels use support structures made of galvanized steel.

Zinc in the Circular Economy

Zinc is part of a circular economy that restores, recovers, and reuses.

For starters, zinc is fully recyclable—it can be recycled from scrap without losing any of its properties. As a matter of fact, 60% of all produced zinc is still in use. Moreover, zinc’s 45% end-of-life recycling rate means that almost half of all the zinc produced is recycled after final-usage.

Zinc’s contribution to the circular economy will help minimize waste and improve resource sustainability as our material needs grow.

Zinc: Strengthening the Path to a Sustainable Future

The uses of zinc today are widespread and make an enormous impact on almost every aspect of our modern lives. Just as our present world could not function without zinc, so will our future.

As we transition to a cleaner world, zinc will continue strengthening, improving, and supporting the modern economy.

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Green Investing: How to Align Your Portfolio With the Paris Agreement

MSCI’s Climate Paris Aligned Indexes are designed to reduce risk exposure and capture green investing opportunities using 4 main objectives.

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Green Investing

Green Investing: The Paris Agreement and Your Portfolio

In Part 1 of the Paris Agreement series, we showed that the world is on track for 3.5 degrees Celsius global warming by 2100—far from the 1.5 degree goal. We also explained what could happen if the signing nations fall short, including annual economic losses of up to $400 billion in the United States.

How can you act on this information to implement a green investing strategy? This graphic from MSCI is part 2 of the series, and it explains how investors can align their investment portfolios with the Paris Agreement.

Alignment Through Indexing

When investors are building a portfolio, they typically choose to align their portfolio with benchmark indexes. For example, investors looking to build a global equity portfolio could align with the MSCI All Country World Index.

The same principle applies for climate-minded investors, who can benchmark against MSCI’s Climate Paris Aligned Indexes. These indexes are designed to reduce risk exposure and capture green investing opportunities using 4 main objectives.

1.5 Degree Alignment

The key element is determining if a company is aligned with 1.5 degree warming compared to pre-industrial levels. To accomplish this, data is collected on company climate targets, emissions data, and estimates of current and future green revenues. Then, the indexes include companies with a 10% year-on-year decarbonization rate to drive temperature alignment.

Green Opportunity

Environmentally-friendly companies may have promising potential. For instance, the global clean technology market is expected to grow from $285 billion in 2020 to $453 billion in 2027. The MSCI Climate Paris Aligned Indexes shift the weight of their constituents from “brown” companies that cause environmental damage to “green” companies providing sustainable solutions.

Transition Risk

Some companies are poorly positioned for the transition to a green economy, such as oil & gas businesses in the energy sector. In fact, a third of the current value of big oil & gas companies could evaporate if 1.5 degree alignment is aggressively pursued. To help manage this risk, the indexes aim to underweight high carbon emitters and lower their fossil fuel exposure.

Physical Risk

Climate change is causing more frequent and severe weather events such as flooding, droughts and storms. For example, direct damage from climate disasters has cost $1.3 trillion over the last decade. MSCI’s Climate Paris Aligned Indexes aim to reduce physical risks by at least 50% compared to traditional indexes by reducing exposure in high-risk regions.

Together, these four considerations support a net zero strategy, where all emissions produced are in balance with those taken out of the atmosphere.

Green Investing in Practice

Climate change is one of the top themes that investors would like to include in their portfolios. As investors work to build portfolios and measure performance, these sustainable indexes can serve as a critical reference point.

Available for both equity and fixed income portfolios, the MSCI Climate Paris Aligned Indexes are a transparent way to implement a green investing strategy.

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Decarbonization 101: What Carbon Emissions Are Part Of Your Footprint?

What types of carbon emissions do companies need to be aware of to effectively decarbonize? Here are the 3 scopes of carbon emissions.

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Scopes of Carbon Emissions Share

What Carbon Emissions Are Part Of Your Footprint?

With many countries and companies formalizing commitments to meeting the Paris Agreement carbon emissions reduction goals, the pressure to decarbonize is on.

A common commitment from organizations is a “net-zero” pledge to both reduce and balance carbon emissions with carbon offsets. Germany, France and the UK have already signed net-zero emissions laws targeting 2050, and the U.S. and Canada recently committed to synchronize efforts towards the same net-zero goal by 2050.

As organizations face mounting pressure from governments and consumers to decarbonize, they need to define the carbon emissions that make up their carbon footprints in order to measure and minimize them.

This infographic from the National Public Utility Council highlights the three scopes of carbon emissions that make up a company’s carbon footprint.

The 3 Scopes of Carbon Emissions To Know

The most commonly used breakdown of a company’s carbon emissions are the three scopes defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a partnership between the World Resources Institute and Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The GHG Protocol separates carbon emissions into three buckets: emissions caused directly by the company, emissions caused by the company’s consumption of electricity, and emissions caused by activities in a company’s value chain.

Scope 1: Direct emissions

These emissions are direct GHG emissions that occur from sources owned or controlled by the company, and are generally the easiest to track and change. Scope 1 emissions include:

  • Factories
  • Facilities
  • Boilers
  • Furnaces
  • Company vehicles
  • Chemical production (not including biomass combustion)

Scope 2: Indirect electricity emissions

These emissions are indirect GHG emissions from the generation of purchased electricity consumed by the company, which requires tracking both your company’s energy consumption and the relevant electrical output type and emissions from the supplying utility. Scope 2 emissions include:

  • Electricity use (e.g. lights, computers, machinery, heating, steam, cooling)
  • Emissions occur at the facility where electricity is generated (fossil fuel combustion, etc.)

Scope 3: Value chain emissions

These emissions include all other indirect GHG emissions occurring as a consequence of a company’s activities both upstream and downstream. They aren’t controlled or owned by the company, and many reporting bodies consider them optional to track, but they are often the largest source of a company’s carbon footprint and can be impacted in many different ways. Scope 3 emissions include:

  • Purchased goods and services
  • Transportation and distribution
  • Investments
  • Employee commute
  • Business travel
  • Use and waste of products
  • Company waste disposal

The Carbon Emissions Not Measured

Most uses of the GHG Protocol by companies includes many of the most common and impactful greenhouse gases that were covered by the UN’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol. These include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, as well as other gases and carbon-based compounds.

But the standard doesn’t include other emissions that either act as minor greenhouse gases or are harmful to other aspects of life, such as general pollutants or ozone depletion.

These are emissions that companies aren’t required to track in the pressure to decarbonize, but are still impactful and helpful to reduce:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCS): These are greenhouse gases used mainly in refrigeration systems and in fire suppression systems (alongside halons) that are regulated by the Montreal Protocol due to their contribution to ozone depletion.
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx): These gases include nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and are caused by the combustion of fuels and act as a source of air pollution, contributing to the formation of smog and acid rain.
  • Halocarbons: These carbon-halogen compounds have been used historically as solvents, pesticides, refrigerants, adhesives, and plastics, and have been deemed a direct cause of global warming for their role in the depletion of the stratospheric ozone.

There are many different types of carbon emissions for companies (and governments) to consider, measure, and reduce on the path to decarbonization. But that means there are also many places to start.

National Public Utilities Council is the go-to resource for all things decarbonization in the utilities industry. Learn more.

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