The Sustainable Industrial Revolution Is Just Getting Started
Heavy industries like shipping, steel and plastics have long opted out of climate action. That is starting to change.,
This article is part of our latest DealBook special report on the trends that will shape the coming decades.
Heavy industry uses roughly 149 million terajoules of energy annually, or about 700 times more power than the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. The sector’s sheer scale makes reducing its carbon emissions difficult.
It would require incredible amounts of heat and power for manufacturing and methods to store vast amounts of power for jets, tankers, and trucks. Trillions of dollars in global assets would need to be retired. And the main sectors in play — aviation, shipping, steel, plastics, aluminum, cement, chemicals and trucking — represent massive swaths of the economy, making it a political third rail of climate change action.
But a combination of policy work, technological leaps and industry collaborations has made previously improbable changes into rallying points for more action.
“You’ve actually got to move the whole economy,” said Helen Clarkson, the chief executive of Climate Group, a global nonprofit. “We don’t just get a free pass because it’s more difficult.”
RMI, an organization in Colorado focused on sustainability that was previously known as the Rocky Mountain Institute, estimates that steel production, shipping, aviation and trucking alone contribute 40 percent of global carbon emissions, and if left untouched, will eat up twice the remaining global carbon budget to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050.
There are still immense hurdles, including funding, policy support and unsolved technological challenges. But coalitions and industry groups, including the Energy Transition Commission, which released a 2018 report about such a transition, and Mission Possible Partnership (with support from RMI) have created detailed road maps for sector transformation. The Climate Group’s Steel Zero plan to build demand for carbon-free steel, begun in December, would have been ignored a few years ago, Ms. Clarkson said, but already counts leading global construction firms as supporters.
Can some of history’s highest-polluting industries be trusted? Cate Hight, a principal at RMI, admits that greenwashing is possible. But the improving accuracy of digital tools that third-party groups use to track emissions means corporations can be held more accountable.
To understand how rapidly the ground is shifting, look at steel, a global industry synonymous with smokestacks and responsible for 7 percent of CO2 emissions. Green steel isn’t just a vision, but a reality.
Beginning in 2016, the Swedish steel maker SSAB began developing a fossil-free steel process called Hybrit, which is being tested by the automakers Volvo and Mercedes-Benz.
The pilot process, where iron ore is refined, or reduced, with green hydrogen and renewable energy into oxygen-free sponge iron, which is then shaped with electric arc furnaces into finished steel, will scale up to an operational commercial plant by 2026, which will produce 1.35 million tons of sponge iron annually, said SSAB’s chief technology officer, Martin Pei. Competitors such as ArcelorMittal, Midrex and U.S. Steel have also invested in cutting carbon.
Though positive, these steps represent just a start. The Mission Possible Partnership, a climate alliance between industrial leaders, financiers and policy groups like RMI, estimated that the steel industry needs to invest $30 billion every year just to meet increased demand; another $6 billion is needed to make that all net-zero compliant. Green hydrogen presents a particularly lofty challenge; decarbonizing all heavy industry with this high-potency option would require so much electricity that current global electrical generation would need to double, according to RMI.
Other heavy industry sectors have focused first on reducing rather than completely eliminating their carbon output.
Efficiency excites Ben Schuler, founder and chief executive of Infinitum Electric, a start-up based in Round Rock, Texas, that makes electric motors that are half the size and weight of the standard. His firm’s air-core engines represent a big leap in sustainability; Caterpillar and Rockwell Automation are investors, while the federal government’s Green Proving Ground, which tests nascent building tech in federal buildings, is evaluating Infinitum products for potential wide scale deployment.
Half the electricity in the United States is used to power electric motors, and roughly a third of the growth in global energy demand in the next two decades is expected to come from industrial motors, including those that power fan and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems; compressors; alternators; factory machines; and heat pumps.
“There’s a cleaner, better way to do the exact same processes we’ve done for the last 100 years,” said Mr. Schuler, who expects to deliver 15,000 motors in 2022. “It’ll just take a thousand, or tens of thousands, of other companies like us with good ideas doing their part.”
The uncertainty of such a shift has Ms. Hight convinced the right pathway is “silver buckshot instead of a silver bullet,” an everything-at-once approach that includes electric motors, vast expansion of renewable power and investment in hydrogen technology.
Despite the daunting task ahead, some are optimistic that heavy industry can both shrink its carbon emissions quickly and profit while doing it.
In a wide-ranging report released this summer, RMI’s co-founder Amory Lovins argues that electrification, evolution and the efficiency of clean power will bring about a shake-up that creates “trillions of dollars in creative destruction.” The cost of change is radical, but so is the potential return, he wrote: “We’ll learn that many problems look impenetrable until someone cracks them.”