Decarbonizing industry to tackle climate change is an extremely complex problem that will need all stakeholders working in concert
To say that our planet faces a grave climate emergency is stating the obvious. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, issued a dire warning in its recently released report. “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emission scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades,” the report said in its summary assessment for policy-makers.
As a part of the Paris Climate Accord, most nations agreed to limit global temperature increase to well below 2°C and pursuing policies to limit this increase to 1.5°C. This was reaffirmed in the COP26 Summit held at Glasgow in November last year. Towards this end, all countries had pledged to reduce their carbon footprint. This was to be done through a system of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
A substantial proportion of these pledges to meet NDC targets are linked to Green Energy. That is also the aspect that the media generally tends to focus on. While Green Energy is an intrinsic and vital component of the process to curb carbon emissions, another critical factor is decarbonization of industry.
If major economies like the US, the European Union (EU), China and India have to achieve their net-zero emissions target by 2050-2060, then decarbonizing industry has to be a priority.
This is, however, easier said than done. The challenges posed by decarbonization are multifarious and do not have an easy answers.
Efforts to decarbonize industry, therefore, need to rest on some pillars. The first is to find alternative energy sources that are carbon-free or low carbon and good enough to generate the intense heat and energy required for industrial production. The second is to move, wherever possible, to processes that do away with the use of carbon or upgrade process which can use low carbon energy. The third pillar, where CO2 emissions are inevitable – at least based on currently available technology – is carbon dioxide Capture and Utilization or Storage (CCUS). The last option, is to create carbon offsets by planting and growing trees.
Let us look at each of these pillars and the policy and technology challenges they pose.
Along with renewable strategy like solar and wind, there are many emerging new areas which are going to play a vital role in shaping the future. Two key areas are hydrogen and off-shore wind & new energy technology.
The option that offers the most promise is Green Hydrogen which can be an excellent source of GHG-free heat when combusted. There is a delicious irony in the move towards Green Hydrogen. The element already has a range of uses in industrial production. Most of the hydrogen produced today is by burning fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency, currently, 6% of global natural gas and 2% of global coal go to hydrogen production.
However, an alternative method exists to produce hydrogen – by electrolysis of water that splits it into hydrogen and oxygen. While electrolysis needs electricity, if power from renewable sources is used for this process, the resulting Green Hydrogen could provide an answer to a seemingly intractable problem.
Electrolysis is a relatively mature technology, though currently expensive. It is quite possible that as industries and governments move to decarbonize and economies of scale kick in, it can become more commercially viable.
Another possible cleaner energy source is ammonia. Presently, ammonia's primary usage is in the manufacture of the fertilizer, urea. However, it has a high energy density of 3kWh per litre. The beautiful part is that global transportation and storage infrastructure already exists for the gas, and it could, as a result, form the basis of a new, integrated worldwide renewable energy storage and distribution solution. On the flip side, current production processes of ammonia require massive amounts of fossil fuels accounting for almost 2% of global GHG emissions.
Efforts are on to capture, utilize and store the CO2 emitted in the process – more on this later – resulting in the production of so-called ‘Blue Ammonia’. Last year, Saudi Arabia shipped 40 tonnes of Blue Ammonia to Japan to be burnt in a power plant to produce electricity.
New Energy Technology
Many countries are planning to boost the capacity and use of offshore and new energy technologies via floating offshore wind farms; wave and tidal ocean energy installations; floating photovoltaic installations; the use of algae to produce biofuels.
Low Carbon Chemical Processes
In several industries, where carbon is used as a reducing agent – steel, for example – investments are being made to improve existing processes or innovate low-carbon ones.
There are several decarbonisation initiatives which can be implemented in steel industry specially in Blast Furnace (BF) area which is one of the key energy intensive process. Three of them being explored are: a) Optimizing the BF burden mix by maximizing the iron content in raw materials to decrease the usage of coal 2) Increasing the use of fuel injection through, for example, pulverized coal injection (PCI), natural gas or even hydrogen, and 3) using coke oven gas in the BF as an energy source.
Initial results in using Green Hydrogen to directly reduce iron in blast furnaces indicate the potential to reduce GHG emissions between 18-38%. Similarly, aluminium majors Alcoa and Rio Tinto have partnered to develop a carbon-free aluminium smelting process that replaces the traditional carbon anode with a ceramic one, eliminating the resulting CO2 emissions.
While such novel production processes can contribute to reduced GHG emissions, the fact remains that process chemistry being what it is, emission of CO2 seems unavoidable for the foreseeable future. This, inevitably brings us to the next pillar to decarbonize industry – CCUS.
CCUS refers to capturing CO2 emissions and storing them in deep geological formations. The captured carbon dioxide can also be used to enhance crude recovery by pumping it into oil wells. This might seem slightly backward, but data shows that, at least until alternative technologies relating to Green Hydrogen or process changes become mature, CCUS is presently the most cost-effective way to help industry decarbonize.
The Blue Ammonia that was shipped from Saudi Arabia to Japan, for example, resulted from capturing and utilizing CO2.
Various Carbon offsets scheme provides the option to compensate for emissions made elsewhere.
Given the complexity of the challenges of decarbonizing, it is increasingly evident that it is an issue that cannot be addressed by industry alone. However, it will necessarily play its part. Governments have to step in and play a significant role. They can use a combination of measures – incentives, using their power as large buyers of industrial products and introducing regulatory actions – to help the process.
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