Measuring nickel's carbon footprint

Because the first step in reducing emissions is to measure them, the Nickel Institute has produced guidance to help nickel metal producers calculate their GHG emissions.

With climate change at the forefront of global concerns, a wide range of stakeholders require carbon footprint data from nickel producers.
Why? Customers need to assess the GHG profile of their own nickel-containing products; regulators want to know if products and processes are compliant, and trade platforms such as the London Metal Exchange need data for transparency. In addition, nickel producers themselves need the data to target process improvements. All this requires the nickel sector to produce reliable life cycle data.

Q&A with Dr. Marc Mistry, our sustainability expert

A pillar in the Nickel Insistitute since he joined in 2008, Mark is responsible for life cycle management and sustainability issues in the LCA & Sustainability team.

He specialises in regulatory developments likely to impact the nickel industry and identifies opportunities to contribute to the academic and scientific debate on life cycle assessment and the benefits of using and recycling nickel. He is moreover involved into the development of global sustainability standards. Mark is based in Brussels.

What is the link between carbon footprint and nickel life cycle data?

Life cycle data describe process inputs (such as energy, process chemicals or water) and outputs (such as emissions to water, air or waste). They are collected for each step in the production of nickel products. Life cycle data are the basis for a life cycle impact assessment (LCIA).

Life cycle impact assessment (LCIAs) convert in- and outputs into 15 “environmental impact categories”, the most important being GHG emissions – or the carbon footprint. An LCIA identifies the process stage where the highest or most harmful environmental impacts occur.

How are they used in practice?

Life cycle data are used by end users to assess the environmental performance of a product. The in- and outputs of two products fulfilling the same function can be compared. For example, nickel-containing EV battery technologies can be assessed against a classical combustion engine car to understand the environmental performance of both throughout the entire life cycle.

Life cycle data are also used by nickel producers to target process improvements.

Why are life cycle assessment standards important?

Any GHG calculations must be sound and based on the globally agreed LCA standard (ISO 14044). A coherent approach is necessary to ensure that the data requirements and the life cycle data for nickel producers are compiled on the same basis and therefore comparable.

Are these data updated regularly?

Several parameters impact life cycle data, such as ore grades and presence of by-products, changes in the mining process, the specific process technology applied, energy supply and technology updates or investments in emission reduction or prevention. These factors may change in a relatively short time frame and affect the results of a life cycle assessment significantly.

Life cycle data must therefore be updated regularly. An update every five years is common but often customers and downstream users require the data to be updated even more frequently.

How does nickel compare with
other metals?

In the life cycle community, there is a broad consensus that a comparison should be made on a “functional unit”, rather than a material basis. Nickel is often used as an alloying element. A meaningful comparison with other materials would have to be made on an agreed functional unit, for example, a window frame of a specified size; or a defined tube transporting a specific substance over a certain distance.

Does the quality of nickel life cycle
data vary?

Data consultancies offer carbon foot-print data models which are based on assumptions and frequently rough estimates due to the absence of data. The results of these models often differ significantly from the Nickel Institute’s carbon footprint data which are based on hard numbers provided by companies, calculated to a globally agreed standard and independently verified.

Why are stakeholders interested in the carbon footprint of EV batteries?

Electric vehicles are critical to achieve green and sustainable, decarbonised mobility. There are, however, studies claiming that EVs emit similar or even more GHG emissions than classical combustion engine cars. The carbon footprint of batteries is a significant contributor to the overall GHG emissions of EVs and are under scrutiny from various stakeholders.

Life cycle assessments allow the GHG emissions from electric vehicles and classical combustion engine cars to be compared throughout the entire life cycle. Batteries are a major contributor to the EV carbon footprint and all raw materials and processes to produce an EV battery have to be assessed. Life cycle data provides the basis for the calculation of the EV battery footprint.

How relevant is nickel in the EV carbon footprint?

Nickel contributes around 9 % of the overall carbon footprint of an NMC 111 EV battery. The contribution of the electricity used in battery manufacturing and the aluminium for the casing is far more significant.

Are stainless steel producers interested in nickel life cycle data?

Company-specific life cycle data is becoming increasingly mandatory. For example, the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism requires the carbon footprint of stainless steel to be calculated when being imported into the EU to determine the amount of carbon certificates that need to be purchased. Also, for stainless steel producers declaring their carbon footprint, the data is incorporated into Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

Does carbon footprint vary for different nickel products used in stainless steel production?

Nickel pig iron, ferronickel and nickel metal are the major nickel-containing input materials for stainless steel production. Their carbon footprint can vary by a factor of more than 30 between the producers with the lowest and highest GHG emissions. The choice of nickel product used in stainless steel production therefore impacts the carbon footprint of stainless steel significantly.

Is stainless steel from scrap more sustainable as it has a lower carbon footprint?

Generally, recycling is important to achieve sustainability as it prevents landfill, reduces the demand for primary raw materials, increases resource efficiency and creates jobs for small and medium sized enterprises active in collection and recycling. In life cycle modeling, a “cutoff” approach is commonly applied for the inclusion of secondary materials.

In this approach, scrap as an input material comes free of environmental impacts. “End of life” approaches distribute the environmental impacts from primary production over the several life cycles that a material experiences. Applying end of life approaches would better align the carbon footprints of primary and recycled metal.

The Nickel Institute has produced guidance to help nickel producers calculate their greenhouse gas emissions. How to determine GHG emissions from nickel metal class 1 production is available for download.

If you are interested in life cycle data, life cycle assessment, and GHG emissions, we invite you to have a look on our following pages:


  • Life Cycle Inventory: when companies provide data for a life cycle assessment, they provide so-called input and output data. Input data would be information such as energy, water used, diesel consumed, chemicals for processes etc. Output data are the emissions to air, water, waste generated etc. These inventory data are the basis for further work.

  • Life Cycle Impact Assessment: an impact assessment converts inputs and outputs into environmental impact categories. As an example: calculating all climate relevant gases emitted during a process or throughout a value chain to calculate the global warming potential or carbon footprint of nickel production, use and recycling including scope 1, 2 and 3. The same for water footprint, product (environmental) footprint etc…

  • Life cycle Analysis: an assessment comparing two products fulfilling the same function or service over the entire life cycle from raw materials extraction through manufacturing and use to the end of life and recycling. For example, that would be a comparison of an EV versus a combustion engine car from an environmental and/or economic point of view. When it’s done from an economic point of view, it is called a life cycle costing study. Often, life cycle analyses include both environmental and economic considerations to be able to show both the environmental and cost benefits of one product compared to another.

  • There are different globally agreed ISO standards that need to be followed depending on the type of assessment and the type of product. These standards explain how the assessment needs to be done and what information needs to be provided to ensure the studies can be accepted by the life cycle community and published in a peer reviewed journal.