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Five things to know about decarbonizing cement, steel and chemicals – Canary Media

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This article is part of our special series "The Tough Stuff: Decarbonizing steel, cement and chemicals." Read more.

The industries that produce the building blocks of modern society — steel, cement and chemicals — are incredibly carbon-intensive. And since we’ll always be dependent on at least some amount of these materials, we need to figure out how to produce them without sending staggering quantities of planet-warming CO2 into the atmosphere. 

That’s why Canary Media published an in-depth series examining this exact question: How can we cut carbon emissions from the production of steel, cement and chemicals? For the long, comprehensive answer, check out our series content. For the short version, keep reading — here are five key takeaways about the accelerating effort to decarbonize these foundational substances. 

Thanks in part to a little law you may have heard of called the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. is on pace to slash emissions from two of its most carbon-intensive sectors: transportation and power generation. 

But emissions from industry, which stem primarily from steel, cement and chemicals production, might not even budge over the next decade. That’s why Rhodium Group expects industrial emissions to be the single largest source of U.S. carbon emissions by 2035.

This may sound like a can we can kick down the road; after all, we’ve got our hands full decarbonizing the power grid and passenger vehicles. But we need action now: Many of the technologies required to eliminate emissions from steel, cement and chemicals production will require years to perfect, scale up and popularize. Next decade” might as well be tomorrow when it comes to big industrial timescales.

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These industries, along with others like cargo shipping, are often called hard-to-abate” or hard-to-decarbonize.” We’re not here to debate whether cutting carbon from these industries is hard (no one said the energy transition would be easy), but as many experts have pointed out, this terminology can give the impression that these industries pose an intractable problem. Not so. 

There’s lots of carbon-cutting that can happen right now across heavy industry. For cement, the Department of Energy estimates that near-term solutions like replacing portions of cement with other lower-carbon ingredients can cut emissions by one-third. As for steel, switching from blast coal furnaces to melting scrap metal in electric arc furnaces — a practice already widely embraced in the U.S., but not elsewhere — can cut emissions by up to 75 percent. For chemicals production, technology like heat pumps and thermal energy storage could offer a path to near-term decarbonization. And across the board, energy-efficiency improvements are an underrated tool. 

The path to zero emissions definitely remains foggier for these materials than for, say, the grid. But how to start down the path is comparatively clear.

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If the previous takeaway offered the good news on decarbonizing the tough stuff,” here’s the less-good news: Completely eliminating emissions from cement, steel and chemicals will require us to crack the code on multiple as-yet-unproven technologies. 

To succeed, we’ll need to do some combination of the following: figure out how to generate extremely high temperatures without burning fossil fuels; make a staggering amount of green hydrogen, a fuel that no one can even agree on how to define; and invent new, viable forms of cement — or new production processes that yield conventional cement. And then there’s tech for carbon capture, utilization and sequestration, which, depending on who you ask, is either a silver bullet for the entire energy transition or a catastrophic red herring. 

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But scores of companies, universities, research organizations and government groups are working on making these technologies feasible at the necessary scale — and many of these solutions show genuine promise. What’s needed now is even more investment and policy support so the industry can deploy the best possible solutions as fast as possible. 

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Cement, steel and chemicals are commodities. Producers typically compete on price and price alone. That’s an inconvenient fact for efforts to cut carbon from the manufacturing processes of these materials, which are almost certain to increase prices as companies try to recoup the major upfront investments that will be necessary. 

Most bulk buyers of these materials are not going to pay more money for a product that is lower-carbon unless the government steps in and institutes either punitive measures like a carbon tax or incentives tied to the procurement of low-carbon materials. 

The government also has a role to play as a buyer: The U.S. government, for example, purchases enormous amounts of cement. Experts say it should act as an eager initial customer for more expensive low-carbon materials, helping the industry begin to grow such that it can scale up and drive prices down. 

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While it’s absolutely necessary to do, cutting carbon from the production of cement, steel and chemicals will not solve every problem these industries present. Take petrochemicals — making them with lower-carbon methods won’t change the fact that they are derived from fossil fuels and that their production pollutes nearby communities.

In some cases, decarbonization efforts might even introduce new problems. That’s a concern for labor groups, who fear that transitioning to green steel might mean a shift away from a historically unionized workforce, too. And here’s something that keeps industry experts awake at night: What if green products cost too much and buyers simply choose to import cheaper, dirtier products from countries with laxer rules?

Like any large-scale transformation, decarbonizing cement, steel and chemicals will mean grappling with tradeoffs and unintended consequences. How policymakers, companies, investors and communities navigate those challenges could make or break the efficacy and equity of the transition. 

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Dan McCarthy is news editor at Canary Media.
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