Energy use and GDP growth have been correlated since the start of the industrial revolution, but few politicians would countenance shrinking their country’s economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So, it is up to private industry – with policymakers’ support – to find new ways of operating that cause no environmental harm.
Some progress has been made – renewables-based electricity generation reached a record peak in 2021, exceeding 8,000 terawatt hours; but global carbon dioxide emissions also hit an all-time high, according to the International Energy Agency. Last year’s 6 percent rise in CO2 emissions was the same percentage by which the global economy grew in 2021, underlining the link between industrial activity and prosperity.
Coal – the most environmentally destructive fossil fuel – was the source of more than 40 percent of the year-on-year growth in CO2 emissions. This was due largely to high gas prices spurring utilities to switch to coal, the IEA notes. Global CO2 emissions from industry was 5 megatonnes higher in 2021 versus (pre-pandemic) 2019, while those for the buildings sector surged 81 megatonnes over the same timeframe.
Yet, amid the gloom, major industries are finding ways to decarbonise their activities; electrification of heating, for example, is likely to cut natural gas consumption substantially in the long term.
Massive investment will be needed to produce the minerals needed for energy transition technologies, including electric vehicles, energy storage systems, wind turbines and solar panels. Meanwhile ‘green’ hydrogen and biomass could replace coal in the steelmaking process, and energy-intensive cement-making practices could ultimately be made obsolete by more environmentally friendly techniques.
12. Expand mining of energy transition materials
Transitioning to renewable energy will massively increase demand for many different materials that have hitherto only been used in niche applications.
Onshore wind plants use nine times more minerals than a gas-fired power station, while an electric car needs six times the mineral inputs of a conventional vehicle, according to the International Energy Agency. Electricity networks, which rely on copper and aluminium, will also expand as we electrify heating and transport. Besides copper, wind and solar plants rely on a huge number of metals, including rare earth elements zinc and silicon.
“Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are crucial to battery performance, longevity and energy density,” a 2022 IEA report states, highlighting the importance of rare earth elements for electric vehicle motors and wind turbines, as well as nickel and zirconium for electrolysers and platinum-related metals for fuel cells.
For countries to meet the Paris Agreement climate commitments, the energy sector’s consumption of minerals will surge over the next 20 years, the IEA predicts. The agency forecasts that the industry will take more than 40 percent of global copper production, 60-70 percent of nickel and nearly 90 percent of lithium. This demand will cause lithium consumption to increase 40-fold, and graphite, cobalt and nickel to grow by 20-25 times, the IEA estimates.
“Although shortfalls can be expected in the coming years, several strategies can be deployed to avoid major supply challenges in the period to 2050,” the International Renewable Energy Agency stated in a 2021 report. “These strategies include increased extraction, product design to avoid or minimise use of critical materials, and recycling of products to recover scarce materials.”
13. Take gas out of heating
Many countries are highly reliant on gas for central heating. However, heat pumps and district heating schemes could become the norm as part of efforts to lower carbon emissions.
Heating accounts for nearly half of UK energy consumption and 37 percent of carbon emissions. Yet low carbon sources, including renewables, provide 54.1 percent of UK electricity, so electrifying heating will reduce fossil fuel use.
The UK has one of the highest rates of gas dependence in central heating in Europe. Nearly four-fifths of British households rely on gas central heating; the figure is almost 90 percent in the Netherlands, but in the EU as a whole, just under half of heating is provided by gas.
District heating, which distributes hot water (and therefore heat) from a central location to multiple buildings is commonplace in much of Europe. Such systems could provide up to 20 percent of UK heat demand by 2030 and 43 percent by 2050, according to government estimates, while also delivering numerous environmental and economic benefits, including lower carbon emissions and cheaper heating and maintenance.
Air source heat pumps function like a refrigerator in reverse, extracting heat from outside to heat a building interior. Recent tech advancements have made heat pumps more viable in colder climates. For every unit of energy the devices extract from the air they deliver four units to the building interior, so provide far greater efficiency than gas boilers.
In 2020, 36,000 heat pumps were installed in the UK. To meet the nation’s 2050 net zero target, 900,000 heat pumps must be installed annually by 2028, according to the Committee on Climate Change, which wants all new homes from 2025 to be built without gas- or oil-fired heating.
14. Make green steel a reality
Steel is the powerhouse of global industry, but this vital material is also a huge source of carbon emissions. Accelerating technological advances to enable the industry to shrink its environmental footprint will be a vital step towards net zero.
In making steel, coal is usually burned to produce carbon monoxide, which then works as a reducing agent on iron ore, removing oxygen to create a purer form of iron. Each tonne of steel made in 2020 also emitted 1.89 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Steelmaking generates 7-9 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, according to the World Steel Association, but German conglomerate thyssenkrupp believes it has found a way to make the process greener. Following tests that began in 2019, thyssenkrupp in September announced it would invest more than €2 billion in building its first ‘direct reduction’ plant at its vast Duisburg steelworks. The facility will use hydrogen as the reducing agent instead of coal.
Although thyssenkrupp did not respond to requests for comment, earlier announcements specified the project would use green hydrogen. For each tonne of green hydrogen consumed to produce steel, 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide will be abated, thyssenkrupp estimates.
Rival manufacturers have launched similar initiatives. Sweden’s SSAB last year produced what it claims was the world’s first fossil-free steel via green hydrogen. Australia’s Rio Tinto is conducting trials in which sustainable biomass is the reducing agent.
Per tonne, green steel costs about double that of conventional steel, according to Wood Mackenzie. The consultant forecasts the two steel types will reach parity by 2035 in Europe, China and the US, as around $100 billion is invested in the green steel industry over the next decade.
15. Transform construction methods
The construction industry is the world’s top consumer of raw materials and a massive source of carbon emissions, so making existing and future manmade structures more sustainable will be key to limiting global warming.
Cement production’s carbon intensity has increased since 2015, with the industry responsible for about 8 percent of global CO2 emissions. For the past 200 years, cement has been made by heating various materials such as limestone to high temperatures to create a powder known as clinker that sets within one day.
Increasing energy efficiency and switching to renewable or low-carbon energy sources can all reduce cement’s environmental impact, but alternative production methods and different raw materials could have the biggest impact.
There are many variants of ‘green’ cement. Most use industrial waste materials that are mixed together without heating, while new additives can be used to make pozzolanic cement, which has 99 percent lower carbon emissions and was used to build Rome’s Colosseum. Pozzolanic cement also sets as quickly as its modern equivalent.
Today’s buildings create up to 70 percent of a city’s carbon emissions, and two-thirds of existing structures will probably still be standing in 2050, according to property consultants JLL.
Retrofitting buildings to boost energy efficiency is vital. “UK homes are not fit for the future,” states a report by the Committee on Climate Change that calls on all households to be made low-carbon and low energy. Installing LED lighting and upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems will reduce electricity consumption and running costs, as will wall and loft insulation, and passive cooling techniques such as shading ventilation. For larger buildings, planting greenery on roofs can reduce rainwater runoffs and lower cooling and heating needs.