Pulling the Levers for Change on Industrial Carbon Emissions

This April the Biden Administration announced an ambitious commitment to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50-52 percent by 2030. The announcement shows an ambition and leadership that had been sorely missed.

In the weeks that followed, we’ve seen many policy proposals to drive down emissions in the transportation and power sectors of the economy – as they represent the top sources of U.S. emissions. But it’s the industrial sector —refineries, cement, food processing, our manufacture of steel, chemicals, and other goods —that by the close of this decade will overtake both sectors in emissions if left unchecked.

In recognition of the sector’s importance to decarbonizing our economy, Lever for Change announced this week that a partnership co-convened by C2ES, David Gardiner and Associates (DGA), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) —the Renewable Thermal Collaborative (RTC) —has been awarded $10 million over the next five years through its Climate Challenge 2030 competition. With this support, the RTC will work toward ambitious 2030 goals, including scaling up renewable thermal energy in the industrial sector by 150 percent and slashing the sector’s thermal-related emissions by 30 percent: important steps on the path to full economy-wide decarbonization by 2050.

The industrial sector will be extremely challenging to decarbonize by mid-century. This level of support provides a welcome opportunity to focus attention and resources on a sector in which we must make enormous progress by 2030. Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change, shared that sentiment in a statement announcing the award:

“We are particularly excited by the Collaborative’s potential to build consensus, create the multi-stakeholder community needed to overcome the current barriers blocking cost-effective renewable thermal solutions, and educate policymakers. Ultimately we believe that this project will trigger system changes that will lead to full-sector decarbonization by 2050.”

Cecilia Conrad’s emphasis of community and stakeholder engagement is key to the process of decarbonizing a sector of such diverse challenges and breadth. Collaboration between companies and policymakers will be paramount, but so too will be engagement of communities of color, workers in fossil-fuel intensive industries, environmental justice advocates, and the disability rights community to drive toward an equitable and just transition to low-carbon industry. As part of adopting a listen, learn, act, and advocate approach to this stakeholder engagement, the RTC will establish a diversity, equity and inclusion advisory committee and community engagement network.

The RTC and its members have their work cut out for them. Industrial emissions represent nearly 23 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonizing industrial emissions will require a broad array of solutions and immediate actions to implement them, but Lever for Change’s commitment reflects both progress and promise in that respect. It is a statement on the level of investment needed to help unlock the massive corporate and private capital necessary to tackle this challenge.

The Climate Challenge 2030 award will prioritize renewable thermal technologies like hydrogen, geothermal and beneficial electrification. However, those efforts must be nested into broader solutions for the whole industrial sector. Industrial heat is responsible for as much as half of total industrial emissions. Renewable energy can and should replace a significant portion of the sector’s thermal needs, but it can’t do it all. High-temperature heat can be difficult to attain and maintain with renewable sources. Therefore, decarbonization will also require additional carbon-reducing technologies, including carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS) and small modular nuclear reactors.

Deployment of CCUS in the industrial sector will be a critical solution for cutting emissions from industrial fossil-fuel combustion for heat and electricity generation. Already used in industry, CCUS is among the clean-heat technologies most-ready for wider-scale deployment, and it’s made more financially viable through tax incentives like the Section 45Q credit. It is also indispensable for the capture of carbon dioxide byproduct from chemical reactions during manufacturing processes (steel and cement production, for example). Without CCUS, new manufacturing processes would need to be devised, extending the duration of emissions from these processes and increasing costs.

Nuclear thermal generation also presents a key opportunity for future emission reductions from the industrial sector. While demonstration and deployment is still needed, small modular reactors, with a relatively small footprint, are ideal for colocation with industrial facilities and provide consistent heat needed for low- and medium-temperature industrial processes.

The Lever for Change award and RTC’s ambitious goals for 2030 and beyond represent the promise of a decarbonized future and the commitment to act today to turn goals into a reality. Achieving these goals will mean progress not only in helping to spare our planet from growing global temperatures and worsening extreme weather, but also serve as an engine for economic growth and driver for investments in technologies of the future. Communities, businesses, and political leaders all have an opportunity to focus on solutions to decarbonizing this important sector. We stand ready to join that effort, to ensure that the United States leads the way through ambitious goals and action.