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We must cut carbon from industry. Here’s how we can do it. » Yale Climate Connections

In “Zero-Carbon Industry: Transformative Technologies and Policies to Achieve Sustainable Prosperity,” Jeffrey Rissman focuses on how to cut carbon-warming pollution from industry, a sector often overlooked in climate conversations. It’s available starting today from Columbia University Press. This excerpt has been lightly edited and graphs have been omitted.

Worldwide, there is growing agreement that eliminating human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is essential to securing a livable climate for humanity. China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to achieving net zero by 2060, meaning that it’s pledging that it will produce no more emissions than it removes from the atmosphere.

The European Union, the United States, and dozens of other countries have set 2050 targets. There is greater optimism about the possibility of rapid emissions cuts than ever before, driven by plunging prices of clean energy technologies and policy pathways that will achieve economic growth and create jobs.

Global industry is at the heart of this transition. Industry is responsible for roughly one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions associated with electricity and steam purchased by industry, so efficiently and cost-effectively reducing industrial emissions is crucial. Though industry is a major emitter, it is also at the core of developing low-carbon solutions: Manufacturers produce technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, clean vehicles, and energy-efficient buildings. Therefore, industry must transition to zero-carbon processes while continuing to supply transformational technologies and infrastructure.

aerial photo of a large ship docked at an island that has numerous cylindrical buildings and roads
Tank farm at a petrochemical refinery, Singapore. (Photo credit: Wayne Eastep/Getty Images)

There is widespread awareness of techniques to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from most nonindustrial sectors.

Transportation: Electric vehicles and urban planning that facilitates walking, biking, and transit are making great headway in reducing transportation emissions. More than 50 countries have announced plans to ban the sale of new fossil-fuel-powered cars. Worldwide, electric vehicles’ share of new sales is expected to exceed 20% by 2030 and it will reach 33% in that year if countries enact policies to meet their existing pledges.

Buildings: Smart thermostats, improved insulation, LED lighting, heat pumps, and rooftop solar panels are beginning to dramatically cut energy use and emissions from buildings. For instance, in 2020, California became the first U.S. state to require solar panels on almost all newly built homes. California homes built in 2020 with solar use an average of 53% less energy than those built in 2016 without solar.

Electricity generation: Renewable energy, now cheaper than fossil power in much of the world, is helping to decarbonize the electric grid. Renewables made up 82% of newly installed capacity worldwide in 2020. Interconnecting larger areas using transmission lines, instituting demand-response programs, and deploying energy storage can manage variability and enable renewables to supply a very high share of total electricity.

In contrast, the techniques to decarbonize industry are less well understood, and policies to accelerate industrial decarbonization are not as common or ambitious as policies targeting other sectors.

Policymakers are often hesitant to regulate industry for two reasons. First, industry is complex. Industrial firms produce millions of products using a wide variety of production processes. Industrial greenhouse gas emissions are not just from burning fuels but also include “process emissions,” byproducts of manufacturing processes. This complexity is seen as an impediment to understanding which policies would be effective and avoid unintended consequences. Second, policymakers are cautious about requirements that might have adverse impacts on domestic firms’ competitiveness. Industry is a source of high-quality jobs. Policymakers do not wish to cause industries to move to other political jurisdictions to escape regulation, an effect called “leakage.”

Fortunately, the challenge is not as great as it seems, for three key reasons. First, industrial emissions predominantly come from a few specific industries, so a large share of emissions cuts can be achieved by improving a small subset of all companies and industrial processes. The three highest-emitting industries — iron and steel, chemicals, and nonmetallic minerals (primarily cement) — account for 59% of all industrial emissions worldwide, and the top 10 industries account for 84%.

Silhouetted figures stand around a brightly lit and large furnace
Workers with molten steel, Sheffield, U.K. (Photo credit: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images)

Second, industrial emissions are concentrated geographically. China alone accounts for 45% of the world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions, while the top 10 countries together account for 75%. This means that policy decisions made in just 10 countries govern three-quarters of the world’s industrial emissions.

Even that understates the importance of decisions made in these geographies because policy can help accelerate research and development (R&D) progress and drive down technology costs, benefiting the entire globe. Additionally, if these regions transition to clean manufacturing, they may impose policies requiring that imported materials and products be produced in a sustainable way to level the playing field for their domestic manufacturers. Improving economics of clean production combined with supply chain requirements can spread decarbonization far beyond the borders of the countries that enact industrial decarbonization policies. Therefore, advocates for industrial decarbonization need not make the case independently in hundreds of countries: Helping a few, key countries transition to clean industry will go a long way toward helping the entire world achieve zero-carbon industry.

Third, certain technologies and technical approaches are broadly applicable and can reduce emissions from almost every industry. Energy and carbon management technologies such as energy efficiency, electrification, hydrogen and other renewable fuels, and carbon capture cut across many industries. So do strategies to reduce the need for industrial materials and products while providing equivalent or better services: material efficiency, material substitution, and circular economy measures — such as product longevity, repairability, and recycling. The existence of powerful approaches that work across industry lines helps cut through the complexity of the industry sector and enables policymakers to design supportive policies without possessing deep knowledge of every manufacturing process in every industry.

In short, eliminating greenhouse gases from global industry is very achievable in a time frame compatible with countries’ net-zero pledges. Well-designed, ambitious policies and investments in existing and new technologies will be crucial to get there. This transition will provide enduring economic strength, secure a livable future climate, and achieve lasting prosperity for generations to come.

Excerpted from “Zero-Carbon Industry: Transformative Technologies and Policies to Achieve Sustainable Prosperity” by Jeffrey Rissman. Copyright (c) 2024 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey Rissman is Energy Innovation’s senior director for industry. Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC® is a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.

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