Unproven technologies and not enough investment geared toward the decarbonization of energy is leaving several emissions-intensive industries such as aluminum, steel, plastics, and cement at risk of missing carbon budgets and impacting international net-zero goals.
A report by Zero Waste Europe and Eunomia Research and Consulting finds that failure to address these issues in materials production, which it says accounts for a quarter of the world’s emissions, will result in the industry significantly missing sustainability targets. As it is, these industries are on track to miss the 1.5-degree Celsius target of the Paris Agreement, the research suggests.
Adoption of proven emissions practices, such as using renewable energy sources, should be made a priority in the near term. If the industries wait until after 2030, even proven technologies will be much less effective, the research says.
The report says aluminum, steel, plastics, and cement account for almost 80% of the emissions from the materials production industries. It outlines ways each can make improvements and help maintain carbon budgets.
The report also says any actions taken toward net-zero goals need to reach maturity by 2040, meaning any policies directly targeting those actions need to be in place by 2030. Policy interventions should include reducing material consumption overall or shifting material use to less carbon-intensive sectors.
Policies should also include long-term access to affordable renewable energy, promote energy storage to support renewables and add resilience, and drive investment in new energy sources and carbon reduction methods. That includes green hydrogen development and improving carbon capture and storage methods.
Among the ideas are significantly increasing investment in decarbonizing energy in aluminum production and retrofitting existing systems with available technology that results in emissions reduction for iron and steel. The report says the concrete industry relies too much on unproven technologies and that plastics will be challenged to make improvements as it moves away from fossil fuels to bio-based materials.
Overall, the report finds all four of the emissions-intensive materials sectors will miss their carbon budgets even under the best estimates without further action. It says cement and plastics, especially, may need even more stringent carbon reduction efforts.
The report finds the plastics sector needs to increase recycling rates from 15% to 60%. For cement and cement, the report says decarbonizing energy, improved building standards, and successful implementation of carbon capture and storage technologies, which may not happen until the end of the decade, are necessary.
Improvements the aluminum sector can make include using clean energy and increasing recycling efficiency. Electricity is the main source of emissions in aluminum production, accounting for almost 65%. For iron and steel, the report recommends the use of electric arc furnaces as well as the increased use of green hydrogen as an energy source.
“Slowly decarbonizing for the next 30 years is evidently not enough and there is a clear need to change the way we think about material production and consumption,” Eunomia’s Simon Hann, lead author of the research says. “Bold and decisive near-term action from policymakers and industry leaders is therefore essential to make this happen.”