Low-carbon options for heavy industry like steel and cement are scarce and expensive.
Working with a blast furnace to make steel and iron. Getty Images
Climate activists are fond of saying that we have all the solutions we need to the climate crisis; all we lack is the political will.
While it’s true enough as policy goes — we certainly have enough solutions to get started and make big changes — as a technical matter, it is incorrect. Truly defeating climate change will mean getting to net-zero carbon emissions and eventually negative emissions. That means decarbonizing everything. Every economic sector. Every use of fossil fuels.
And actually, there are some sectors, some uses of fossil fuels, that we do not yet know how to decarbonize.
Take, for instance, industrial heat: the extremely high-temperature heat used to make steel and cement. It’s not sexy, but it matters.
Heavy industry is responsible for around 22 percent of global CO2 emissions. Forty-two percent of that — about 10 percent of global emissions — comes from combustion to produce large amounts of high-temperature heat for industrial products like cement, steel, and petrochemicals.
To put that in perspective, industrial heat’s 10 percent is greater than the CO2 emissions of all the world’s cars (6 percent) and planes (2 percent) combined. Yet, consider how much you hear about electric vehicles. Consider how much you hear about flying shame. Now consider how much you hear about … industrial heat.
Not much, I’m guessing. But the fact is, today, virtually all of that combustion is fossil-fueled, and there are very few viable low-carbon alternatives. For all kinds of reasons, industrial heat is going to be one of the toughest nuts to crack, carbon-wise. And we haven’t even gotten started.
Some light has been cast into this blind spot with the release of two new reports by Julio Friedmann, a researcher at the Center for Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University (among many items on a long résumé).
The first report, co-authored with CGEP’s Zhiyuan Fan and Ke Tang, is about the current state of industrial heat technology: “Low-Carbon Heat Solutions for Heavy Industry: Sources, Options, and Costs Today.”
There’s a lot in these reports, but I’m going to guess your patience for industrial heat is limited, so I’ve boiled it down to three sections. First, I’ll offer a quick overview of why industrial heat is so infernally difficult to decarbonize; second, a review of the options available for decarbonizing it; and third, some recommendations for how to move forward. MORE