The modern way of life and economic growth is heavily dependent on products from three primary heavy industries: chemicals, steel, and cement.
While these industries produce diverse products, they are energy-intensive and generate massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industries is necessary to avoid the devastating impacts of climate change.
The main challenge is implementing common solutions for addressing this critical problem without compromising the sector’s indispensable contributions to national wealth and economic growth.
For this reason, a multi-pronged approach using proven decarbonization techniques and new technologies is the day’s priority.
As per EPA records, 24% of 2020 greenhouse gas emissions were from various industrial sectors. Besides carbon dioxide, greenhouse gasses like nitrous oxide, methane, and fluorinated gasses were also emitted.
The main causes behind these gas releases are burning fossil fuels for energy and the emissions from various chemical reactions linked with manufacturing processes. The industrial sector also accounts for approximately 37% of global energy consumption.
Presently the accepted global target is to halt temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. 195 nations committed to these figures in the Paris Agreement of 2015.
Quantitative findings have reported various impacts and threats if this goal is not reached. To achieve the target, we need to cut down 30 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2030.
Beyond this threshold, popular support for climate action has risen significantly in the past years across the globe. Protesters in various countries are putting pressure on governments and businesses to address issues related to climate change and pursue sustainable development goals.
With the rising change in consumer attitudes, more and more industries are acknowledging the importance of embracing a low-carbon future.
The reality is we cannot combat climate change without reducing industrial emissions. However, this goal is notoriously difficult to achieve as various industrial processes are closely linked with greenhouse gas emissions. The main industrial sectors contributing the most to carbon emissions are steel, cement, ammonia, and ethylene.
Energy-intensive industries like steel extensively use coal that generates carbon dioxide when combusted. Likewise, converting limestone into calcium oxide in cement plants also leads to carbon dioxide emissions.
A complete change in the associated manufacturing process is needed to eliminate these emissions, which is not easy to achieve.
Over the past three decades, there has been a significant reduction in the energy and carbon intensity in manufacturing processes in the United States.
Other governments around the globe have also set carbon reduction targets with a focus on industrial decarbonization. Even so, a lot more remains to be done.
The International Energy Agency has outlined specific goals for the G7 countries to develop a rapid decarbonization strategy for heavy industries. Here are some of the most important ones.
- Developing long-term action plans that drive towards zero-emission manufacturing processes, supply chains, and projects. The policy should consider factors like a reduction in the dependence on fossil fuels and uncertainties like international price volatility.
- Supporting industrial innovations and sustainability initiatives to bring about technological changes and funding pilot projects for developing and adopting such technologies. This should include financial mechanisms to support the deployment of net-zero initiatives like clean hydrogen production, and renewable electricity should be planned.
- Create a robust demand for near-zero products by leveraging the private and public sectors. This will help the companies make more investments in deploying low-carbon technologies.
- Create an international broad-based alliance to promote and coordinate industrial transitions on a global scale. With a consolidated set of standards and norms, it will be possible to accelerate the global pace of decarbonization of heavy industry segments.
- Place special attention on the decarbonization of the more complex cement sector, where the majority of emissions are related to the manufacturing process. Using renewable energy sources or green hydrogen will not positively impact these emissions. So analyzing other solutions like carbon sequestration is necessary.
The sheer volume of strategic and financial support needed for heavy industries to switch to renewable energy makes this a slow process, especially for countries with limited resources.
Presently, four key pathways have been identified to enable the transition of heavy industries.
The term energy efficiency implies using less energy while performing the same task. For heavy industries, a comprehensive energy efficiency strategy is critical to a transition towards carbon neutrality.
Energy efficiency can be improved by optimizing manufacturing systems and the industrial heat generated for various processes. Other than that, modernizing manufacturing processes and using advanced data analytics to detect energy waste can reduce energy costs and emissions.
Since these processes often need more efficient equipment, the upfront capital requirement is often a barrier. Introducing incentives and other financial mechanisms can help mitigate this financial burden.
Shifting from fossil fuels to low-carbon electricity is another critical aspect of the decarbonization pathway. For this, electricity costs need to be lower than that of combustion fuels. Additionally, detailed engineering studies are often required to integrate electrification technologies with existing processes.
Electrification of thermally-driven manufacturing processes in the steel, aluminum, and cement industries is key. The process of heat generation is possible by using processes like induction, radiative heating, heat pumps, or electrochemical methods.
Using low carbon fuels (LCF), like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), bioethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen in industrial processes, is a cost-effective solution for emission reduction. However, many heavy industries need to develop fuel-flexible processes to take full advantage of such fuels.
In addition, there are challenges like limited feedstock for biofuel production and regulatory uncertainties. Some of the world’s top oil and gas companies have significantly invested in this space to overcome the barriers in recent years.
This process involves the capturing of carbon from waste gases to reduce emissions. This is especially applicable for ‘hard-to-decarbonize’ industries like steel, cement, and glass, where the process parameters limit the ability to reduce CO2 emissions below a certain point.
CCUS is a practical solution in scenarios where the captured carbon dioxide can be transported for use in secondary applications or stored underground. The process can also be effective for power plants based on fossil fuels.
Various industries across the globe, including startups, are taking steps to promote decarbonization. A few emissions reduction initiatives taken by some of the world’s top corporate brands are listed below.
- Chevron Corporation has partnered with Carbon Clean, a global leader in providing industrial carbon capture solutions. Their goal is to pursue breakthrough technologies to effectively control process carbon emission.
- Asia’s largest oil refiner, the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, has set a target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 by shifting to clean energy and natural gas.
- Australia’s leading cement and construction materials manufacturer, Boral, has planned a transition to 100% renewable electricity. Beyond that, it has decided to invest more in carbon capture and storage technologies.
- Nippon Steel has decided to improve energy efficiency and develop a steelmaking process based on direct hydrogen reduction.
As the world shifts from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the future of decarbonization lies in the development of new technologies and ecosystems. Here are some pointers that will look into the future, leading toward net-zero targets.
- Governments will frame new policies to encourage or mandate the use of technology and recycling programs to accelerate decarbonization. Incentives encouraging businesses to move away from fossil fuels and use low-carbon energy sources are also likely.
- Digital transformations will be a key to meeting decarbonization goals through the use of advanced asset management solutions. These will help industries run their processes optimally while ensuring reliable utility operations.
- Apart from renewable energy sources, synthetic fuels like electrofuels and green and turquoise hydrogen can play an important role in decarbonization.
- Carbon capturing technology will become more sophisticated as investors focus on methods for using stored carbon more profitably. In the coming years, the commoditization of captured carbon can evolve into a big industry by itself.
- As the cost of zero-carbon electricity drops, it can become a more viable solution for heat generation for much lighter industrial applications. It can even be a more cost-competitive option than installing CCS.
A decarbonized industry is a business that has removed carbon from its process chain and ensured zero emissions.
Various industrial activities like manufacturing and construction lead to the emission of around one-third of the total greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. So industrial decarbonization is a vital step in reducing the impact of global warming.
The most successful decarbonization techniques are improving energy efficiency and moving from fossil fuels to renewable power sources. Carbon capture technology is not capable of capturing 100% carbon from emissions. So additional efforts involving carbon-negative technologies will be needed to offset the residual carbon.