Industrial sectors are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but they can also achieve significant reductions by using mature technologies, according to a new study. The study, published in the journal Joule, found that most industrial sectors could reduce their emissions by 85% by applying technologies such as carbon capture and storage, and fuel switching.
The Challenge of Decarbonizing Industry
Industry is responsible for about 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions and 38% of global energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. The sector includes cement, iron and steel, chemicals, and other energy-intensive processes that emit carbon dioxide not only from burning fossil fuels, but also from the chemical reactions involved in the production.
Decarbonizing industry is crucial for meeting the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, it is also challenging, as there are no easy substitutes for the emissions-intensive processes, and the sector faces long investment cycles, low profit margins, and trade exposure.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added more uncertainty and complexity to the situation, as the demand and supply of industrial products have been disrupted, and the monitoring and auditing of emissions have been hampered.
The Methodology and Results of the Study
The study, conducted by researchers from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, the MIT Energy Initiative, and ExxonMobil, used an enhanced version of the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model to assess the potential of various technologies to reduce emissions from industry.
The study focused on technologies that are already commercially available or at an advanced stage of development, such as:
- Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which captures carbon dioxide from industrial sources and stores it underground or uses it for other purposes.
- Fuel switching, which replaces fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives, such as hydrogen or biomass, as feedstock or fuel for industrial processes.
- Demand-side measures, which reduce the demand for industrial products by increasing efficiency, recycling, or substitution.
The study assumed that these technologies are the only options available for industry to mitigate emissions, and that they are implemented under a global climate policy that aims to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
The study found that these technologies could reduce industrial emissions by 85% on average across most sectors, with some variation depending on the sector and the technology. For example, the study found that:
- CCS could reduce emissions by 90-99% in sectors such as cement, iron and steel, and chemicals, where process emissions are significant and difficult to avoid.
- Fuel switching could reduce emissions by 60-100% in sectors such as food and drink, pulp and paper, and glass, where energy-related emissions are dominant and biomass or hydrogen can be used as alternatives.
- Demand-side measures could reduce emissions by 10-40% in sectors such as cement, iron and steel, and chemicals, where efficiency improvements, recycling, and substitution can lower the demand for the products.
The Implications and Recommendations of the Study
The study shows that existing technologies can achieve substantial reductions in industrial emissions, but it also highlights the challenges and trade-offs involved in deploying them. For example, the study notes that:
- CCS is a costly and energy-intensive technology that requires large-scale infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to ensure its safety and effectiveness.
- Fuel switching depends on the availability and affordability of low-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen or biomass, which may have their own environmental and social impacts.
- Demand-side measures may face behavioral and economic barriers, such as consumer preferences, market dynamics, and policy incentives.
The study also emphasizes that the results are based on technical feasibility, and do not account for other factors, such as social, economic, or infrastructure issues, that may affect the adoption and implementation of the technologies.
The study provides several implications and recommendations for the stakeholders involved in the decarbonization of industry, such as:
- For the industry, to adopt and implement a human rights due diligence approach, which involves identifying, assessing, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for the impacts of their activities on the human rights of the workers, and to disclose their policies and practices in a transparent and verifiable manner.
- For the policymakers, to provide clear and consistent signals and incentives for the industry to invest in and deploy the technologies, such as carbon pricing, subsidies, standards, and regulations.
- For the researchers, to develop and demonstrate new and improved technologies that can further reduce emissions from industry, such as electrification, circular economy, and negative emissions.
- For the consumers, to support and demand the products and brands that are produced with low-carbon technologies, and to raise awareness and advocacy for the issue.
The study concludes that decarbonizing industry is possible and necessary, but it requires a concerted and coordinated effort from all the stakeholders, and a combination of technologies and measures that are tailored to the specific characteristics and challenges of each sector.