This article is part of our special series "The Tough Stuff: Decarbonizing steel, cement and chemicals." Read more.
Three essential materials — steel, cement and chemicals — fortify and infuse our modern world. Though we may not think about them much, they are everywhere: in the walls that surround us, the roads we travel on and most of the everyday products we use. To meet our insatiable demand, factories and refineries worldwide churn out billions of tons of these building blocks every year.
Steel, cement and chemicals also represent the world’s top three emitting industries, which together are responsible for more than one-quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. That percentage is expected to climb in coming decades as global demand increases — and with emissions from other sectors, including power generation and transportation, trending downward as they make strides toward replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
Unlike power plants and vehicles, however, industrial facilities have few straightforward solutions for slashing planet-warming pollution. There’s no electric-car equivalent for a chemical refinery or rooftop-solar version of steel mills.
Turning raw iron ore into high-strength steel, making the cement that binds together concrete, and “cracking” molecules into millions of different kinds of chemicals are all complex multistep processes that involve burning copious amounts of fossil fuels to generate intense heat. That in turn drives chemical reactions that also release carbon dioxide — what are known as “process emissions.” Add to this the fact that kilns, mills and crackers are typically large, capital-intensive facilities designed to operate for decades.
For these reasons, climate and energy experts have traditionally described heavy industries as “hard-to-abate” or “hard-to-decarbonize.” Four other sectors — heavy-duty road transportation, aviation, cargo shipping and aluminum — also fall under that category, but they each represent relatively smaller slices of total CO2 emissions.
Lately, we at Canary Media have noticed a shift in the way that policy leaders and technology developers characterize these gritty, dirty, vital industries. They point out that labeling these sectors as “hard” may be giving companies, investors and governments too much of an excuse to delay decarbonization at a time when global temperatures are reaching unprecedented highs.
To be sure, transforming these industries will be exceedingly difficult. Decarbonizing iron and steel alone is expected to require $1.4 trillion of investment by 2050. But pathways do exist — some of them available today, some further out on the horizon — for curbing emissions, boosting efficiency and slashing energy use.
“There’s no reason not to move,” said Angela Barranco, executive director for North America at Climate Group. The international nonprofit is spearheading initiatives to create global markets for “net-zero” concrete and steel.
“Five years ago, it felt like we didn’t know how to tackle these parts of the carbon budget,” she said. “Now I feel like in every single piece there’s innovation, there’s implementation.”
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The real challenge now is that all of those pieces need to evolve simultaneously and work together harmoniously, a complicated orchestra of interrelated solutions.
The roadmap for decarbonizing steel, chemicals and, to a lesser extent, cement production relies on “green” hydrogen — produced using renewable electricity and water — to lower emissions from industrial processes. First, however, the United States and the rest of the world must install potentially terawatts’ worth of renewable energy capacity, deploy large fleets of hydrogen electrolyzers, and develop networks for storing and moving around the carbon-free gas.
Shifting away from fossil fuels and toward electricity-driven heating systems will similarly require vast amounts of new renewable capacity, as well as upgraded grid infrastructure to balance the gaps between intermittent energy supplies and around-the-clock industrial demand. Some plant operators may determine that the best way to curb emissions from their existing facilities is to capture CO2 from flue streams. But they’ll have to figure out how and where to store the CO2 or transport it to industrial customers.
Replacing carbon-rich limestone in cement production and ditching petrochemicals for making plastics and fertilizers means creating new chemistries and building supply chains around alternative materials. The same goes for the innovative startups that are working to develop breakthrough technologies, including electrochemical methods that could potentially obviate the need to use massive amounts of green hydrogen and electricity.
And that’s just the supply side. Creating demand for greener products, especially if they come at a higher cost, entails navigating a whole different set of policy, regulatory and financial hurdles.
In recent weeks, as I’ve been reporting on these thorny issues, I’ve found myself glancing at the red spine of Anne Lamott’s classic writer’s guide Bird by Bird. In it, she recalls her brother feeling “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead” — in his case, writing a school report on birds due the next morning. “Bird by bird, buddy,” her father counseled him. “Just take it bird by bird.”
In a recent conversation, a chemical industry executive expressed a similar sentiment: The energy transition happens through a series of progressively cleaner solutions, not with a single silver bullet. “You take a slice of the problem and clean it up,” he told me. “And then another technology comes along and takes another 15 percent of emissions, and helps clean that other slice up.”
In Canary Media’s special week of coverage, we’ll illustrate the jaw-dropping enormity that is the world’s consumption of steel, cement and chemicals — and the CO2 emissions that come with it. We’ll highlight the “slices” of solutions that have the potential to transform how the world’s essential building blocks are made. We’ll introduce the startups and manufacturers that are experimenting in labs, scaling demonstration plants and adopting new techniques in their ordinary operations. No doubt our reporting will continue beyond this week. Enormous change is getting underway, and it’s a story the world is only just starting to tell.
Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.
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