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Amy Brown headshot

Heavy Industry and Transport Slashing Climate Footprint

By Amy Brown

With the onslaught of sobering climate assessment reports, it is refreshing to get an optimistic take from some of the industries that are among the largest contributors to climate change. In the recently released Mission Possible report, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) argues that fully decarbonizing the world’s cement, steel, plastics, trucking, shipping and aviation sectors is technically possible by 2050.

Heavy industry, like cement, steel, and plastics and heavy-duty transport, along with heavy road transport, shipping and aviation together represent 40 percent of carbon emissions from energy systems today, according to the Energy Transitions Commission. This share will grow to 60 percent of remaining emissions by 2040 in a 2°C  scenario, as other sectors lower their emissions.

Not easy, but possible

If the Commission’s assessment is realistic, tackling emissions from these harder-to-abate sectors could put a real dent in global carbon reduction targets and would help meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming ideally to 1.5°C and well below 2°C. The urgency is clear: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recent special report found that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C already between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.

The "Mission Possible" report concludes that the most challenging sectors to decarbonize are plastics, due to end-of-life emissions; cement, due to process emissions; and shipping because of the high cost of decarbonization and the fragmented structure of the industry. The challenge is immense.

In the cement industry, for example, for every ton of cement made, the process releases approximately a ton of carbon dioxide. Some 23 cement producers, accounting for 30 percent of world cement production, formed the Cement Sustainability Initiative (CSI) of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in 2017 to accelerate the deployment of low carbon solutions. 

The authors of the report, a coalition of global energy leaders including large companies in the sectors, organizations, academics and other thought leaders, are not daunted. They say that abating these sectors could require investing some 0.5 percent of global GDP a year, using mostly existing technology. But efficiencies, employment and advances in technology could more than offset the costs, they argue.

How do we get there?

The report, developed with contributions from over 200 industry experts over a six-month consultation process, argues that complementary sets of actions are required to get the heavy industry sectors to substantially lower their carbon impact: 

  • Limiting demand growth – which can greatly reduce the cost of industrial decarbonization and, to a lower extent, of heavy-duty transport decarbonization; 

  • Improving energy efficiency – which can enable early progress in emissions reduction and reduce eventual decarbonization costs; 

  • Applying decarbonization technologies – which will be essential to eventually achieving net-zero CO2 emissions from the energy and industrial systems.
"If we want to be on the path to the goals of the Paris Agreement, we will need to eliminate all the carbon emissions from our economy," Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy think tank and ETC member said in Scientific American. "So we just can't ignore the trickier sectors like cement, steel, plastics, aviation, shipping, etc."

Drilling down to the details

The Commission focused on existing technologies that could be used to green heavy industry and shipping. Managing waste and improving energy efficiency are considered particularly important. Reusing plastic, steel, aluminum and cement could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from those four industries by 40 percent globally, ETC found.

Renewables will continue to expand, the report projects, allowing for electric drivetrains and batteries in transportation, and using electricity to generate heat for industrial processes in lieu of fossil fuels. In ETC's view, electricity's share of total final energy demand will need to rise from roughly 20 percent today to more than 60 percent by 2060.

In heavy-duty transport, electric trucks and buses (either battery or hydrogen fuel cells) are likely to become cost-competitive by 2030, while, in shipping and aviation, liquid fuels are likely to remain the preferred option for long distances but can move closer to zero carbon by using bio or synthetic fuels. Improved energy efficiency, greater logistics efficiency and some level of modal shift for both freight and passenger transport could reduce the size of the transition challenge.

The report embraces limited roles for controversial climate technologies like carbon capture and sequestration for the industrial sector and biofuels for aviation. Neither is a broad solution, but both can be helpful in reducing emissions in areas where other alternatives are not available, Kortenhorst said.

Not least, he added, a price on carbon will be significant in providing the incentive for industries to decarbonize, simultaneously incentivizing improved energy efficiency, supply-side decarbonization and demand reduction.

Strong business case

Succeeding in decarbonizing the harder-to-abate sectors would not only limit the harmful impact of climate change, Commissioners argue, but drive prosperity through rapid technological innovation and job creation in new industries.

New investment opportunities will also arise both in low- carbon infrastructure, and in companies that take advantage of low-carbon innovation in materials, products and business models, the report notes.

Creating demand for “green” materials and mobility services, initially at a premium price, could help expand commitment to 100 percent electric vehicles by businesses and cities and accelerate the commitment to low-lifecycle-carbon-emissions materials for commercial and industrial buildings, among other benefits.

Image credit: Pixabay

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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