Industry and shipping are the hardest climate nuts to crack. Together, they account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the cost-competitive technology needed to green both sectors is in short supply.
A new paper from the Energy Transitions Commission, a coalition of global energy leaders, outlines a path for breaking both sectors open, zeroing out their emissions by midcentury.
It argues that reducing waste, improving energy efficiency, greening the power supply and advancing technologies like carbon capture and biomass will be key to cleaning up planet-warming pollution from airplanes, cement fabricators and steel mills, among others.
Done correctly, it may not even break the bank.
“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,” said Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy think tank and ETC member. “So we just can’t ignore the trickier sectors like cement, steel, plastics, aviation, shipping, etc.”
The think tank focused on existing technologies that could be used to green heavy industry and shipping. Managing waste and improving energy efficiency figure to be particularly important. Reusing plastic, steel, aluminum and cement could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from those four industries by 40 percent globally, ETC found.
The report assumes that renewables will continue to expand, 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 estimation, electricity’s share of total final energy demand will need to rise from roughly 20 percent today to more than 60 percent by 2060.
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.
Overcoming cost would likely be the central hurdle to realizing many of the proposals outlined by the study. ETC estimates that decarbonizing heavy industry and heavy-duty transport would cost 0.5 percent of global gross domestic product, a relatively modest figure in a macro sense but an immense challenge for individual companies that may not be able to afford the upfront investments needed to reduce emissions.
A carbon price will be significant in providing the incentive for industries to decarbonize, Kortenhorst said. But the report calls for a carbon price with a twist. In the case of tradable commodities like steel, ETC recommends levying a carbon price on consumers. If a price is levied on a steel mill, that will simply drive production elsewhere, Kortenhorst said.
By contrast, a carbon price is better levied directly on a cement manufacturer’s operations because cement is largely produced domestically and not traded more widely.
“Pricing the externality of carbon, be it a carbon tax or a cap-or-trade system, is an incredibly power policy lever,” Kortenhorst said. “And this report demonstrates that this is an especially powerful lever in this sector.”