Cement kilns, furnaces and boilers can’t compete with electric vehicles, wind turbines and batteries in stirring the public’s imagination. But industrial emissions are too important to overlook.

Industry — think makers of iron, concrete and chemicals — accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And the problem has been getting worse: Direct industrial emissions rose by 65 percent from 1990 to 2014.

Any hope of meeting Paris Agreement targets rests on decarbonizing the industrial sector over the next half-century. The task is made more difficult by the sector’s lack of inherent appeal. 

“You don’t hear as much about the specific technologies and strategies to decarbonize industry as you do some of the sectors,” Jeffrey Rissman, director of the industry program at think tank Energy Innovation, told Greentech Media. “Industry can be a little more obscure because it's behind the scenes; it's manufacturing processes, what happens inside the factory.”

Rissman led an effort to tap the collective wisdom of more than two dozen researchers from eight countries to produce a roadmap for decarbonizing global industry over the next 30 to 50 years. In a new study, the researchers find that global industry can reach net-zero emissions by 2070 if existing technologies are enabled by smart policies like carbon pricing, research and development, and energy-efficiency and emissions standards.

A handful of industries are responsible for most of the sector’s emissions. The top three — iron and steel, chemicals and plastics, and cement — account for more than 55 percent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

Credit: Energy Innovation

The good news is that with the right policies in place, deep emissions reductions are possible within and across industrial sectors, the researchers say.

“We don’t need any fantastical new ideas for things that don’t exist at all today or haven’t been conceived of,” Rissman said. “But we still do need to have R&D support to help make the technologies we do have, some of which are still relatively new and have a lot of progress yet to make on cost reductions and efficiency improvements, to ensure that those improvements are in fact realized.”

A three-phase decarbonization framework

The new study envisages three phases of industrial decarbonization, each lasting 15 or 20 years.

In phase one (2020-2035), mature technologies, including electrification, energy and material efficiency, increased reuse and recycling, are deployed first. By phase two (2035-2050), technologies such as carbon capture and storage, carbon capture and utilization, and new cement chemistries are ready to join the effort. In the final phase (2050-2070), zero-carbon hydrogen finds widespread use in heavy industrial applications.

Rissman and his colleagues are hopeful about the potential of low-carbon technologies to drive down emissions in the three top-emitting industrial sectors. Electric arc furnaces powered by zero-carbon electricity can recycle scrap steel into new steel. The research team cites studies positing that electric arc furnaces could account for up to 56 percent of the EU’s or 100 percent of Germany’s steel production by 2050.

Electrification could play a role in cement production, too, where today coal accounts for 70 percent of the sector’s global thermal fuel demand. “To completely decarbonize heat production for cement, electrification of cement kilns or [carbon capture and storage] may be necessary,” the authors write.

For chemicals production, where fossil fuel combustion is the largest source of CO2 emissions, one promising solution is "steam crackers" powered by zero-carbon electricity.

According to the study, steam crackers must reach 850°C to break down the hydrocarbon mixture naphtha for further processing. The use of carbon-free electricity in the process could slash CO2 emissions by up to 90 percent, and a consortium of chemical manufacturers (BASF, Borealis, BP, LyondellBasell, SABIC and Total) is working to create “the world’s first electrical naphtha or steam crackers.”

On a track parallel to the deployment of low-carbon technologies over the next half-century is continuous public- and private-sector R&D.

“Research and development don't cease the moment a technology is created in its earliest form. You still need R&D to help bring down the costs of the technology, or incrementally improve its efficiency, or help with scale-up,” said Rissman.

The need for ongoing R&D is demonstrated by the case of hydrogen. The study authors don’t expect hydrogen to scale rapidly in heavy industry until the final phase of their decarbonization framework.

“That doesn't mean we can ignore it today,” said Rissman. “We have to start pouring effort into research and development on that today so that it's ready for us to roll out at scale a little later.”

No one policy or perfectly calibrated carbon price alone is sufficient to decarbonize global industry, said Rissman. “By mixing different policies, each one can offset the weaknesses of the other with its own strengths. R&D makes it cheaper to meet emission standards." 

"Standards help in places where the carbon-pricing signal fails. Carbon pricing gives an incentive for the leaders to get better, whereas the standard might not. Each policy fits together as [part of] this puzzle.”