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Achieving net-zero emissions requires a focus on the industrial sector

As political leaders and climate negotiators convene in Dubai for the COP28 United Nations climate conference, a formidable task overshadows the discussions: the decarbonization of the global industrial sector. In recent years, industry has been responsible for more than 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest single-emitting sector, especially when considering electricity consumption and heat generation. To achieve their emission reduction targets, nations must prioritize mitigating emissions from carbon-intensive industries such as steel, cement, and chemicals.

There are promising technologies and innovations that can propel decarbonization in the industry, including green hydrogen fuel produced from clean electricity and water, energy efficiency measures integrated throughout supply chains, and carbon capture, use, and storage, among others.

However, these solutions have not been implemented at the necessary speed and scale to effectively mitigate global warming. To stay on course for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, a target embraced by numerous major economies, global industrial emissions must decrease by 25% by 2030. This demanding reduction of 3% per year calls for a substantial mobilization of financial resources, advanced technology, and political determination.

Encouragingly, several countries are taking steps in the right direction. The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, enacted in 2022, allocates approximately US$80 billion annually for climate initiatives from 2022-27, incorporating provisions to stimulate clean technology deployment and incentivize emissions reductions across industrial sectors.

Yet, while commendable, efforts in developed countries fall short of driving global decarbonization at the necessary pace to curb global warming. Developing nations encounter significant obstacles in adopting low-carbon technologies, ranging from inadequate infrastructure to insufficient skills and capacity.

In a recent paper published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, derived from in-depth analyses of specific industries, we present a comprehensive roadmap for global industrial decarbonization. Here are some key points:

  1. Scaling Up Finance: There must be a radical scale-up of financing for industrial decarbonization in the developing world. Annual investments need to increase at least sevenfold by 2030 to align with the trajectory toward achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century. Grants, loans, risk guarantees, and equity investments from both public and private institutions can help mobilize the necessary funds.
  2. More Technology Transfer: Decarbonization efforts will progress faster if developed countries accelerate technology transfer to the Global South, ensuring that developing economies receive the advanced technologies required and are integrated into global value chains. Knowledge and expertise dissemination will be crucial, especially as the majority of industrial emissions are anticipated to come from emerging economies by mid-century.
  3. Improved Job Training: The net-zero transition requires a substantial workforce with new capabilities, emphasizing the need for investments in human capital and skills training. Collaboration between companies and governments can lead to the development of curriculums and apprenticeship programs focused on green technologies, addressing the growing demand for skilled workers in renewable energy and related sectors.
  4. Ensuring a Just Transition: A just transition for communities reliant on fossil fuels for generations is another priority. As industries transform, some jobs will be lost, necessitating robust government and industry programs to support displaced workers and ensure the equitable distribution of economic and environmental benefits.
  5. Establishing a Global Treaty: A new global treaty may be necessary to coordinate industrial decarbonization swiftly. Such a treaty could establish standards, encourage policy coordination, and prevent unfair competition as countries transition to net-zero industries. “Climate clubs,” comprising developed and developing countries collaborating to reduce emissions from specific industrial sectors, could also drive progress and facilitate technology sharing.

In conclusion, achieving net-zero emissions in heavy industry is challenging but not impossible. Smart policies, investments in technology and human capital, and strong leadership from both developed and developing countries can turn industrial decarbonization into a notable success story for climate action and economic development.

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