The idea of decarbonizing the world’s factories, mines, and farms that are critical to the global economy would be a massive undertaking, as nearly 25% of greenhouse emissions originate from heavy industry.
With this in mind, the industrial sector is long overdue for a green energy revolution; one that strives to meet future-facing climate goals. The challenge is multifaceted and leans on four key pillars:
- Energy Efficiency
- Clean Energy Sources
- Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage
- Low-Carbon Fuels, Feedstocks, and Green Energy
Together, these steps can set heavy industry on a trajectory toward zero emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But first, let’s review the foundational principles of industrial decarbonization.
What Is Industrial Decarbonization?
Industrial decarbonization is the process of reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions from the industrial sector, which accounts for about a quarter of global emissions. The industrial sector includes manufacturing, mining, construction, and agriculture, which all rely heavily on fossil fuels for energy and feedstocks.
According to the DOE, industrial decarbonization is essential for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. It’s also a key component of the clean energy transition, which is shifting the global energy system from fossil fuels to renewable clean energy sources.
Industrial Decarbonization Challenges
However, industrial decarbonization is no easy feat, as it faces a number of technical, economic, and social challenges.
Some of these challenges include the high costs and uncertainties of new technologies, the lack of supportive policies and regulations, the volatility of existing infrastructures and practices, and the potential impacts on competitiveness, jobs, and communities.
The 4 Pillars of Industrial Decarbonization
To overcome these challenges, industrial decarbonization requires a holistic and systemic approach that addresses the multiple dimensions and drivers of emissions in the sector. This approach can be summarized by the 4 pillars of industrial decarbonization:
1. Boosting Energy Efficiency
Energy efficiency is the first and most cost-effective pillar of industrial decarbonization, and it refers to using less energy to provide the same or better level of service or output.
Improved energy efficiency can be achieved by modifying the design, operation, and maintenance of industrial processes, equipment, and buildings, as well as adopting best practices and standards.
Some examples include building management software that optimizes energy usage, or heat pumps that simultaneously heat and cool without burning fossil fuels (unlike traditional boilers and chillers).
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy efficiency can deliver 40% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement goals. A renewed focus on efficiency can reduce energy consumption and electricity costs, while working toward those global climate targets.
2. Substituting Clean Energy Sources
The second pillar of industrial decarbonization is substituting clean energy sources for fossil fuels. Clean energy sources include renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal), nuclear energy, and hydrogen. Substituting clean energy sources can reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, while enhancing energy security and diversity.
Still, clean energy has yet to overcome some barriers, such as the variability of some renewable sources, the high costs and safety issues of nuclear energy and hydrogen, and the need for infrastructure and integration with existing systems.
It’s important to remember that clean energy sources are different from green energy. While clean energy has the potential to emit small amounts of CO2 or other pollutants, green energy is derived from renewable sources and doesn’t produce any pollution in the process. All green energy is also “clean energy” by definition—but the reverse isn’t always true.
3. Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS)
The third pillar of industrial decarbonization is carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). CCUS is a set of technologies that can capture CO2 from industrial sources, such as power plants, steel mills, and refineries.
Captured carbon can be used for beneficial purposes, such as enhanced oil recovery or synthetic fuels, or stored permanently underground. CCUS can reduce emissions from hard-to-abate sectors, such as cement and steel, which account for about 60% of industrial consumption and 70% of CO2 emissions in the sector.
However, CCUS also faces some challenges. Capture and transport pose high costs and energy requirements, and there’s a lack of current incentives and regulations for deployment. There are also issues with the uncertainty and liability of storage, as well as the public’s acceptance and the environmental impact of carbon capture technology.
4. Low-Carbon Fuels, Feedstocks, and Green Energy
The fourth and final pillar of industrial decarbonization is low-carbon fuels, feedstocks, and green energy.
Low-carbon fuels and feedstocks are materials that can replace fossil fuels and high-carbon feedstocks in industrial processes, such as biofuels, biomethane, synthetic fuels, and hydrogen.
These three alternatives have the potential to greatly reduce fossil fuel consumption while creating new value chains for the industrial sector. They still have certain challenges though, such as the availability and sustainability of biomass resources, the scalability and efficiency of synthetic fuel and hydrogen production, and the integration of renewable energy and energy storage systems.
Collaborating for a Cleaner Future
Decarbonizing heavy industry may seem improbable, but collaborative efforts are a powerful force. With a shift toward energy efficiency, renewable energy integration, carbon management, and bio-based fuels, the world can inch closer to a zero-emission future.
Ultimately, these pillars offer a pathway for factories, manufacturers, and farms to help fulfill global climate goals—and to create an environment where robust industry and climate protection can coexist.
Dalrada Climate Technology: Enabling Cleaner Operations
Dalrada Climate Technology develops innovative commercial heat pump technology that offers simultaneous heating and cooling capabilities and provides significant cost and energy savings, alongside other innovative climate-focused products and services.