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The pathway to slashing industrial emissions

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
A workman from Power Shift Solar installs a solar panel Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The U.S. clean energy transition received a much-needed boost this year. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), signed into law in August, delivered billions to accelerate innovation and deploy infrastructure needed to build a clean economy, help Americans electrify their homes and commutes, and ultimately protect our energy system from extreme weather and other risks. After nearly two decades of innovation, investment and organizing, climate commitments are paying off and leaders are doubling down on building the economy we need.

But some of the industries upon which this transition depends are themselves big drivers of carbon emissions. Constructing the wind turbines, solar panels, transmission towers, electric vehicles and more that the United States and the world will need in the coming decades — not to mention critical infrastructure like roads, schools, hospitals and clean water systems — will take a lot of cement, concrete, steel and aluminum. These industrial building materials all currently require a lot of energy — and carbon — to produce.

To reach our “North Star” climate goals, the United States and all governments committed to tackling the climate crisis must have plans in place to address industrial emissions, alongside critical decarbonization efforts in other sectors. New modeling from my organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), released Tuesday assesses an ambitious yet realistic decarbonization scenario for the U.S. industrial sector, in line with what is necessary for the United States to stay on a 1.5-degree Celsius aligned pathway.

Today, industry is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Without strong measures to switch to clean technologies in the sector, that percentage is expected to increase through 2050. Under business as usual, the industrial sector is on track to become the largest source of U.S. GHG emissions within the decade.

Our analysis shows that the U.S. industrial sector can begin the transition to decarbonization immediately by encouraging broad uptake of existing solutions like energy efficiency and electric boilers to supply low-temperature steam for industrial processes. Beyond that, four key solutions together can help the sector reach deep decarbonization, cutting industrial GHG emissions at least 70 percent by 2050.

The largest driver of these cuts is cleaning up already electrified industrial end uses by investing in renewables like solar and wind and efficient options. That’s because electricity is used in multiple heavy industrial subsectors such as aluminum, steel and other fabricated metals manufacturing, as well as in the food industry.

Next, a massive transition of currently non-electrified industrial processes to efficient, electric options that run on clean power can take another big bite out of industrial emissions.

And finally, deeper cuts will require developing and scaling new technologies that could prove transformational in decarbonizing sectors like cement and steel manufacturing. These include using green hydrogen in steel manufacturing, and finally, deploying carbon capture and storage in the production of cement.

The good news is that many of the technical and political hurdles that have impeded heavy industry decarbonization efforts for years are now moving into the rearview mirror. The IRA includes billions in targeted and well-designed industrial decarbonization incentives and investments to help retrofit existing industrial manufacturing plants and build new, first-of-a-kind clean plants right here in the United States. At the same time, IRA couples this funding with billions to purchase these materials, catalyzing markets for clean industrial materials. That’s smart policy.

If implemented well, these investments will make the United States a global leader on decarbonizing some of the most polluting and tricky industrial applications — steel and cement. 

Developing and deploying these needed technologies offers the prospect of commercializing game-changing climate solutions, akin to the innovation breakthrough represented by electric vehicles in the transportation sector or heat pumps in home heating.

And the technological innovation and demonstration that happens in the United States won’t just stay in the United States. Low- and zero-emissions industrial processes must also become scalable and widely available in the next decade for less industrialized nations to meet expected growth without increasing emissions.

For years, the conventional wisdom about cutting industrial emissions was that these sectors were “hard-to-abate” and so their pollution would continue. But this doesn’t hold true to what we know: The solutions needed to curb emissions in this critical sector are either available today or in reach, but they need implementation support and significant innovation to unlock.

If successful, this vision can deliver not only major benefits to our climate and environment, but economic development, jobs and investments in American competitiveness in a carbon-constrained global economy.  

Now it’s time for us to get to work.

Sasha Stashwick is director of industrial policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Tags Climate change decarbonization Electricity Energy Global warming Industry
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