Posted on February 11, 2021 by Rich Powell
Too often, climate change policy is oversimplified to false choices. Economy versus environment, 100% reductions around the world versus inaction here at home — these false choices ultimately cloud potential solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its lagging effects to the economy drove U.S. greenhouse gas emissions down more than 10% in 2020, putting the country below 1990 emissions levels for the first time, according to new preliminary estimates released by the research firm Rhodium Group.
But, cheering on that good news of emissions reductions is part of the climate trap. Achieving these reductions resulted from the global economy screeching to a halt. Yet these numbers are creating the long-term perception that using less power and manufacturing less is key to clean air. Here’s the truth: we can simultaneously have a perfectly healthy global economy, create more power and products in America and around the globe, and achieve the same or greater CO2 reduction.
At ClearPath, reducing power-sector emissions has been our primary focus for the past six years; however, this year, we are excited to add the industrial sector to our portfolio. Combined with the power sector, this really expands our scope – going from tackling a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions to half.
Our mission is to develop and advance policies that accelerate breakthrough innovations that reduce emissions in the energy and industrial sectors. To advance that mission, we develop cutting-edge policy solutions on clean energy and industrial innovation.
Why Are We Doing This?
The short answer: we want to meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions around the world. Due to the impact of COVID-19, emissions from industrial facilities were roughly as high as those from power plants, or 24% of all U.S. emissions in 2020. For the very first time, industrial emissions were neck and neck with the power sector, and it is likely that industrial emissions will remain higher than power emissions going forward. By 2030, industrial facilities are expected to be the top source of U.S. emissions, exceeding those from power plants and vehicles.
The longer answer: we will not meaningfully reduce emissions without more clean and affordable technologies. That’s been our mantra guiding our power sector work, and it rings just as true in the industrial sector. The U.S. natural gas revolution and its dramatic impact on reducing U.S. emissions demonstrate the immense potential of clean energy abundance. Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch in industry. Clean power technologies we’ve long advocated for can be readily translated to the industrial sector, expanding markets for carbon capture, advanced nuclear and more.
At the end of the year, Congress also provided a legislative head start. Tucked inside the most significant clean energy legislation we’ve seen in over a decade were measures to phase out industrial super pollutants, create clean industrial technology research and demonstration programs, and improve permitting processes. It’s pretty clear there is real, bipartisan support for tackling climate change with innovation, and we should use this blueprint and keep working towards a cleaner future. For ClearPath, that means doing more.
So, what is the industrial sector? Unlike electricity, which is generated in the U.S. to power everything in the U.S., industries are global by nature, and therefore REALLY require technological innovation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. For most commodities, industrial production is like a balloon – squeeze it with emissions regulation in one place and it simply relocates somewhere else in the world. This means the U.S. cannot unilaterally zero out carbon emissions by shutting down our industrial base. We’d simply import emissions from other countries, likely with more lax environmental standards. Already, a quarter of all global carbon dioxide emissions change hands between countries in the form of traded goods. That is why we will be searching for approaches that encourage manufacturers to stay in the U.S., produce in the U.S., perhaps even move back to the U.S., but to do so in a cleaner way.
The industrial sector manufactures products, and industrial sector emissions result from making those products. We’ll be focusing on three technology areas with high emissions reduction potential – metals, concrete & cement, and hydrogen.
Innovative solutions coming out of research facilities and companies like Boston Metal to produce emissions-free steel, and HeidelbergCement looking at sustainable cement, are pushing the needle on how we think about manufacturing, efficient energy usage, and most importantly emissions reduction.
The federal government has traditionally (and very successfully) reduced emissions from the industrial sector by improving the energy efficiency of facilities, saving energy and money for American manufacturers. Building on these successes, it is starting to apply the same logic to more transformative technologies and processes.
Global Industry Direct CO2 Emissions
What’s Our Master Plan?
We have an easy-to-understand 4-step plan to decrease emissions in the industrial sector.
First, we need more RD&D. There are already some policies we could build off of and legislation that Congress should pass. The Clean Industrial Technology Act, which was included in the Energy Act of 2020, passed in December of last year. There are many promising technologies on the horizon, but many decarbonization pathways are still in their infancy and are undergoing research and development to iron out any kinks in a lab before they’re ready for primetime. Implementing the Clean Industrial Technology Act and other provisions in the energy bill is step one.
Second, I’m a big believer in John Doerr’s “Measure What Matters.” In this case, while we can track direct emissions, we don’t have a good sense of where emissions are coming from in industrial supply chains. The federal government should establish processes that increase transparency. As seen with the USDA Organic label, consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products. Let’s apply that same logic to carbon dioxide emissions across a variety of products. It supports corporate commitments, emerging state and local goals, and consumer preferences.
Third, create conditions for U.S. manufacturers to thrive. Some industries operate on very low margins and face immense international competition. We cannot disadvantage American industry by saddling them with extra compliance costs or more expensive technologies that drive more manufacturing overseas.
Fourth, let’s set realistic goals. Many industrial sectors are already pretty clean. Two-thirds of U.S. steel, for example, is already produced using recycled steel and an all-electric process – and new processes are being demonstrated that make high-grade steel. Even with that progress, steel remains one of the largest sources of industrial emissions. Many industries need extra hot heat and can’t be electrified with renewable energy, produce emissions as byproducts, or have recently built manufacturing plants that will remain in operation for decades. Thus, it’s unrealistic to expect the industrial sector to fully decarbonize by mid-century. Similar to how the U.S. scaled up solar power with DOE’s SunShot Initiative, or is working to commercialize energy storage and advanced nuclear with the Energy Storage Grand Challenge, Grid Storage Launchpad, and Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, let's apply our talents for creating market-driven goals to commercialize innovative technologies that will reduce industrial sector emissions.
We recognize the need for more innovation and less regulation to set up a suite of moonshots for key clean technologies we’ll need to decarbonize affordably and reliably, and we’re excited to dive in. Stay tuned.