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Decarbonizing the world’s industries is now possible with current technology

Scientists have discovered that removing harmful emissions from the atmosphere by decarbonizing the industrial sector worldwide could potentially be reduced by up to 85%.

The industrial sector, encompassing the production of iron, steel, chemicals, cement, and food and beverages, is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about a quarter of the total.

These emissions are a driving force behind climate change and the resulting extreme weather conditions.

Technologies that can turn the tide

Spearheaded by the University of Leeds, the research, a collaborative effort within the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), indicates that decarbonizing the industrial sector is not only possible but feasible with a combination of existing and emerging technologies.

Ahmed Gailani is the study’s lead author and Research Fellow in Industrial Decarbonization at Leeds’ School of Chemical and Process Engineering.

“Decarbonization is a global priority for governments, companies, and society at large, because it plays such a vital role in limiting global warming,” Gailani said.  

The findings of this research are a testament to the potential for significant emission reductions through the adoption of both “high and low-maturity” technologies.

These include proven solutions like carbon capture and storage, as well as innovative approaches such as fuel switching to hydrogen or biomass.

Gailani celebrated their research, saying, “Our findings represent a major step forward in helping to design industrial decarbonization strategies and that is a really encouraging prospect when it comes to the future health of the planet.”

From carbon capture to electric steam crackers

Additionally, the study highlights the potential of low-maturity electric technologies, like electric steam crackers, to decarbonize up to 100% of direct emissions in some sectors.

Peter Taylor, is a co-author of the study and Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems. He underlines the necessity for evidence-based strategies to foster new technologies, incentivize investment in infrastructure, and overcome barriers preventing companies from taking action.

Industrial decarbonization is challenging compared to other sectors but can be achieved if evidence-based strategies are designed to enable the development of new technologies, encourage investment in related infrastructure, and reduce other barriers that make it difficult for companies to take action,” Taylor explained.

National policy implications and action

Taylor warns that failure to decarbonize the industry could lead to the UK missing its climate change targets and risk the future viability of its industrial sector.

“For the UK, if we don’t decarbonize industry, we won’t meet our climate change targets and ultimately industry will move elsewhere because, in the long term, people will be looking for products made in a clean, green way and if our industry can’t produce these then it will become the industry of the past, not the industry of the future,” Taylor implored.

The implications of this research are far-reaching. The UK has committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a goal that requires balancing emitted gases with an equivalent amount of removals from the atmosphere.

The insights from this study are already influencing policy, having been incorporated into a consultation on enabling industrial electrification by the UK’s Department of Energy Security and Net Zero.

Tech solutions can remove industrial emissions

As the global economy continues to grow, so does the demand for industrial products like steel, chemicals, and cement. This growth leads to increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, meeting the Paris Agreement targets on climate change necessitates a near-total elimination of global industrial emissions.

This research highlights the technical feasibility of cutting down emissions by up to 85% across various sectors, including iron and steel, chemicals, cement and lime, and more.

“We wanted to be explicit about the fact that our focus was the technical side of industrial decarbonization. There are of course many other barriers to overcome,” Dr. Gailani emphasized.

“For example, if carbon capture and storage technologies are needed but the means to transport CO2 are not yet in place, this lack of infrastructure will delay the emissions reduction process. There is still a great amount of work to be done.” 

Economic hurdle of decarbonization

The study also sheds light on the economic challenges inherent in adopting decarbonization technologies.

High capital and operational costs, especially for electrification technologies, present significant hurdles due to the higher electricity costs in many markets.

This economic factor is crucial for understanding the pace at which these technologies can be adopted.

The collaborative effort among leading universities assessed the technical potential for emission and energy savings from key emission-reducing technologies.

By reviewing published research and data, the team identified the most promising technologies for each sector, calculating an average emission abatement potential of 85%.

Reducing industrial emissions requires policymakers

Professor Rob Gross, Director of UKERC, highlighted the importance of a whole systems approach to industrial decarbonization.

“Industrial decarbonization is an important research priority for UKERC as finding the most appropriate solutions requires a whole systems approach,” Gross explained.

“Many of the most promising industrial abatement options rely on having access to supporting infrastructure whether that is hydrogen and CO2 pipelines, or upgraded electricity connections.” 

Dr. Gailani views this research as a crucial first step in helping policymakers understand the diverse technological potentials for reducing emissions in each industrial sector.

This understanding is vital for making informed decisions on the best paths forward for decarbonization.

Industrial emissions policies need further planning

In summary, this study illuminates the complex yet feasible path toward decarbonizing industries, underscoring the vital role of cutting-edge research in identifying technical solutions capable of significantly reducing emissions across key industrial sectors.

By highlighting the necessity of overcoming economic, infrastructural, and social barriers, the team calls for a collaborative, multi-faceted approach.

Policymakers, industry stakeholders, and the global community must work together to implement these technologies, addressing the challenges of high costs and the need for supportive infrastructure.

The study emphasizes the crucial need for a whole systems approach to achieve a sustainable, low-carbon industrial future.

While the technical potential for decarbonization is significant, realizing this potential will require comprehensive strategies that go beyond technology alone.

The full study was published in the journal Joule.


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