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Time running out to clean up heavy industry – but carbon capture and electrification offer hope

Jennifer Johnson

Stock image. The UK's industrial greenhouse gas emissions must drop by more than 90% over the next 30 years to bring net zero within reach (Credit: Shutterstock)
Stock image. The UK's industrial greenhouse gas emissions must drop by more than 90% over the next 30 years to bring net zero within reach (Credit: Shutterstock)

Almost one quarter of all man-made greenhouse-gas emissions come from energy use in industry. The decarbonisation of industrial activities must be well under way by 2030 to ensure that global climate targets can be achieved.

Optimistic observers will point to substantial progress in the electricity sector, especially in Europe, as evidence that carbon-intensive power generation is in terminal decline. Positive as the rise of renewables has been, there is still much work to be done to clean up heavy industry and energy-intensive processes. 

In the UK alone, industrial greenhouse-gas emissions must drop by more than 90% over the next 30 years to bring net zero within reach. Now more than ever, innovation in technology and policy is needed to drive meaningful progress. But what comes first? Does the invention of novel technologies spur lawmakers into action? Or can policies force the private sector to find fresh solutions to the problem of carbon emissions? 

Carbon prices

Some analysts believe that higher carbon prices could serve as a crucial impetus for the development of carbon-capturing technologies, which will likely be necessary in sectors with hard-to-abate emissions. For instance, in a hydrogen strategy document published last year, the European Commission predicted that carbon prices in the range of €55-€90 per tonne of CO2 are needed to make fossil-based hydrogen production (with carbon capture) cost competitive with traditional production. 

As it stands, it’s cheapest to make hydrogen by the process of steam methane reformation, which carries a hefty carbon footprint. However, if higher carbon prices made it more expensive to release – rather than capture – these emissions, hydrogen developers would have an incentive to install carbon-capturing equipment. The same logic applies to many other sectors that might benefit from the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS), including steel, cement and chemicals manufacturing. 

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon-capture equipment could be retrofitted to power and industrial plants that may still be emitting 8bn tonnes of CO2 in 2050. This is a figure equivalent to one-quarter of today’s annual energy-sector emissions. Environmental groups often stress that CCS must not be thought of as a silver bullet or catch-all solution for all industries. Rather, it should be used only where other technologies are not suitable. 

Electrifying boost

In a policy brief released earlier this year, researchers from University College London said that Europe should focus on the development of industrial electrification (“such as through the development and commercial uptake of high-temperature industrial heat pumps”) in conjunction with the accelerated deployment of zero-carbon power-generating technologies. In combination, renewables and high-temperature industrial heat pumps could provide significant quantities of clean energy for the industrial sector. 

Energy efficiency is another critical tool that often gets overlooked in discussions about carbon reduction. While the ultimate goal is a net-zero industrial carbon footprint, ensuring that a facility is using the most efficient technology available is a highly effective interim measure. In steelmaking, for example, the IEA has estimated that an energy saving of 20% per tonne of crude steel would be possible globally if all blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace production facilities invested in readily available cost-effective technologies.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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