At least one fifth (21%) of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies have committed to meet net zero targets, according to a new report called ‘Taking Stock: A global assessment of net zero targets.’ The companies together represent sales of nearly $14 trillion. Net zero emissions, in simple terms, means agreeing to not add new greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. This can be done by either reducing overall emissions or by compensating for new emissions by utilizing natural carbon sinks such as forests and oceans that absorb CO2 emissions. Resources are used by industries for essentially two reasons; production processes often require high temperatures and raw materials are often fossil based by nature. The Shell Sky scenario projects that a fully decarbonized industry will still consume twice as much resources as it does today, driven by population and consumption growth. Herein lies a massive challenge: achieving carbon neutrality while meeting the increased demand for products.

While setting emission reduction targets is the first step, there will need to be detailed plans on how the reductions will be achieved. The decarbonization of industries, primarily driven by sectors like steel, cement and chemicals, emitting more than 9 gigatons of CO2 yearly, is a complex task that requires deep understanding of technologies available today but also of innovative technologies that will become available in the future.

Some of these technologies can be implemented today and do not fundamentally change the industrial processes. These technologies increase the resource efficiency, reduce the carbon intensity of feedstock or capture and store the emissions. Other technologies, like biomass gasification, electrification or carbon capture, reduce emissions by changing a key step of the industrial process and usually extend the lifetime of an emitting industrial asset.

The legacy of the process can also be completely changed; the fundamentals of the process are changed. Examples of this are CO2 electrolysis, microbial cementation or other biological routes to chemical building blocks.

We cannot talk about industrial decarbonization as a single pathway, there is no simple solution to the industry’s challenges. Instead, industrial decarbonization is realized through application of diverse technologies that are unique to specific industries and their core processes.

Timelines complicate the matter further: an industrial plant requires large investments and is built to last several decades. Many companies pledged to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050, which puts them under significant pressure – how fast can they transition their industrial assets that were built to last a lifetime to net-zero in just 30 years?

It will require to deploy all near- to midterm options that allow decarbonization of existing assets. However, few of these technologies lead to complete decarbonization. More transformational technologies could provide full decarbonization, but they face significant technological and economical challenges.

The degree to which fossil-based products will be penalized by carbon taxes and the consumer behaviors switching to low carbon products will drive investments and timelines.

In any case it would be wise for emitting industries to prepare for new ways of making products, without such high temperatures, with alternative materials and feedstocks and using carbon as a resource. Innovation is needed across all 3 horizons, but with the factor time in mind.

Fred van Beuningen