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Industrial Decarbonization - Challenges, Opportunities, and the Road Ahead

According to new research, harmful emissions from the industrial sector might be cut globally by up to 85 %.

According to new research, harmful emissions from the industrial sector might be cut globally by up to 85 %.

Image Credit: Sener Dagasan/

The sector, encompassing iron and steel, chemicals, cement, and food and drink, is responsible for approximately a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—these are the planet-warming gases contributing to climate change and extreme weather events.

As part of its contribution to the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), the University of Leeds led this recent study, which discovered that decarbonizing the sector is technically possible using a combination of "high and low-maturity" technologies that is, tried-and-true technologies as well as emerging technology that is not yet ready for use in industry. 

Decarbonization is a global priority for governments, companies, and society at large, because it plays such a vital role in limiting global warming, our findings represent a major step forward in helping to design industrial decarbonization strategies and that is a really encouraging prospect when it comes to the future health of the planet.

Ahmed Gailani, Study Lead Author and Research Fellow, Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, University of Leeds

Net Zero Target 

The United Kingdom has committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which means that it will remove an equal amount of harmful pollutants from the environment as it adds. 

This new study examined how this might be accomplished for industry and was published in the journal Joule. It was discovered that existing "medium to high maturity" technologies, such as fuel switching to hydrogen or biomass, or carbon capture and storage, may save about 85% of emissions on average in the majority of industrial sectors.

Furthermore, it implies that low-maturity electric technologies, such as electric steam crackers, which are essential pieces of machinery used in the production of petrochemical goods, have the potential to decarbonize 40% to 100% of the direct emissions produced by the industry.

In some situations, it was previously unthinkable, but other new electrification technologies can also aid in lowering emissions from energy-intensive industries like steel, cement, and ceramics. 

The UK's Department of Energy Security and Net Zero have already included some of the study's findings in a consultation on facilitating industrial electrification.

Cement, steel, and other industrial goods are extensively utilized in the world economy. In recent decades, there has been a tremendous increase in the demand for and production of these materials, resulting in high levels of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, to fulfill the climate change targets set forth in the Paris Agreement, industrial emissions worldwide will need to be almost eradicated.

Industrial decarbonization is challenging compared to other sectors but can be achieved if evidence-based strategies are designed to enable the development of new technologies, encourage investment in related infrastructure, and reduce other barriers that make it difficult for companies to take action.

Peter Taylor, Study Co-Author and Professor, Department of Earth and Environment and Chemical and Process Engineering, University of Leeds

Taylor continued, “For the UK, if we do not decarbonize industry, we would not meet our climate change targets and ultimately industry will move elsewhere because, in the long term, people will be looking for products made in a clean, green way and if our industry cannot produce these then it will become the industry of the past, not the industry of the future.”

Additional Barriers

The study, according to Dr Gailani, characterizes the sector's decarbonization as "technically possible" since, despite reviewing the relevant technology, the researchers neglected to account for additional obstacles, such as those relating to social, economic, or infrastructure difficulties.

Gailani said, “We wanted to be explicit about the fact that our focus was the technical side of industrial decarbonization. There are of course many other barriers to overcome. For example, if carbon capture and storage technologies are needed but the means to transport CO2 are not yet in place, this lack of infrastructure will delay the emissions reduction process. There is still a great amount of work to be done.”

Even if the technological difficulties associated with many industrial decarbonization technologies can be overcome, their high capital and operating costs continue to hinder their adoption. Due to the greater cost of electricity in many countries, electrification technologies often have 2-3 times higher operating costs than fossil fuel-based technology.

The most significant emission-reducing technologies were evaluated for their technological capacity to reduce emissions and save energy. Imperial College London and the University of Bath academics collaborated on this project.

To determine the abatement alternatives relevant to all industries and their level of technological readiness (TRL), the team examined published studies as well as other data sources. By averaging the emission abatement potential of the most promising technologies in each industry, they arrived at the 85 % number.  The industries that were examined were iron and steel, chemicals, food and beverage, pulp and paper, glass, aluminum, refining, and ceramics.

Industrial decarbonization is an important research priority for UKERC as finding the most appropriate solutions requires a whole systems approach. Many of the most promising industrial abatement options rely on having access to supporting infrastructure whether that is hydrogen and CO2 pipelines, or upgraded electricity connections.

Rob Gross, Professor and Director, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC)

Further Research 

According to Dr. Gailani, the research is a crucial first step in assisting policy makers in comprehending the potential of various emission-reducing technologies that may be applied in each industrial sector and, consequently, assisting them in making well-informed judgments regarding the optimal course of action.

The group did point out that additional study was necessary to fully grasp the potential applications of these technologies in various nations and areas. A thorough awareness of the local environment, including the infrastructure, business models, markets and regulations, legislation, socioeconomic background, and resource availability, would be necessary for this. 

The study was funded as part of the work program of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), which is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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