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Realising Innovation in Transitions for Decarbonisation

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New decarbonisation approaches put industries on pathway to change

EU-funded researchers have taken a fresh perspective to mapping out possible transition pathways for carbon-intensive industries. Engineers, social scientists, climate experts and industry have worked together to deliver recommendations that take into account whole value chains, as well as considering issues such as consumer demand.

Industrial Technologies

All industrial sectors need to achieve zero emissions in the future if we are to keep global warming to below 2 °C or 1.5 °C. The REINVENT (Realising Innovation in Transitions for Decarbonisation) project, launched in December 2016, has focused on several sectors that have been relatively slow to decarbonise, such as paper, steel and plastics. These sectors all face different challenges. “All energy-intensive sectors – except perhaps paper – face the problem that decarbonisation could make their product more expensive,” explains REINVENT coordinator Lars Nilsson from Lund University in Sweden. “This may be 20-40 % for steel and 50-200 % for primary plastics. They are all also locked in to existing assets and infrastructures.” Industrial processes also tend to be incredibly complex – another reason why industrial decarbonisation has often lagged behind transport and energy, and why a fresh approach to this issue is urgently needed.

Challenges of decarbonisation

The REINVENT project examined the whole value chain of each industry, looking holistically not only at specific processes in each sector but also at issues such as consumer demand and consumption. “While we have decades of research in sustainable energy and transport, there is very little in the field of industrial decarbonisation,” explains Nilsson. “We hope that our work will help to shape future visions for fossil-free industry, as well as ways of rethinking policy.” The project took into account links between industries, and brought in economics, geography and political science experts. “We asked questions such as: Can we reduce demand? How much can we recycle? What is a reasonable level of plastics?” says Nilsson. “This is an important point, because Integrated Assessment Models – these big models that are used in IPCC reports to develop future scenarios – typically don’t have good representations of mitigation strategies for industry.”

Coherent industrial strategies

Drawing on this extensive fieldwork, the project has set out a series of priority areas for an industrial decarbonisation policy strategy. These recommendations include putting stronger pressure on industry to find and formulate coherent decarbonisation strategies, as well as developing strategies for managing obsolete industries and the phaseout or repurposing of plants and technologies. Increased efforts are also needed to improve materials efficiency and reduce demand for materials. “This entails both push and pull policies,” says Nilsson. “For example, demand-pull policies are needed for green materials that go beyond green public procurement.” In addition, the project calls for strengthened capacities in government and academia to improve the availability of information. REINVENT also provided an assessment of the recently published Masterplan for a Competitive Transformation of EU Energy-intensive Industries Enabling a Climate-neutral, Circular Economy by 2050, as well as the European Green Deal. “These are excellent starting points for moving forward,” says Nilsson. “In our assessment though, they could have included greater attention to materials-demand management, the particular challenges of the petrochemicals sector, and the need for capacity building.” Nilsson identified that demand issues and petrochemicals in particular are important to consider in the EU Industrial Strategy. Furthermore, policy strategies to support successful transitions must: have a clear direction; push technology; articulate market demand pull; include governance capacity; and offer international policy coherence. Any EU approach to industrial decarbonisation policy must therefore be assessed against the international context in terms of implications for competitiveness and trade. Different decarbonisation pathways for the steel, plastics and paper industries have been set out during the course of the project’s work. Steel involves improved energy and materials efficiency, increased focus on circularity and new technologies. Plastics focuses on reducing or optimising use and production, increased circularity and making use of chemical recycling. Finally, paper focuses on efficiency and decarbonising paper production through fuel switching and diversification into biorefineries. The project has successfully taken its message to both policy-makers and industrial leaders. Pathways to fossil-free basic industries and industrial policy implications were presented at COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, at a side-event titled ‘EU Technology Transition for Industry – The Role of Research and Innovation Programmes’. REINVENT is due for completion in December 2020, and Nilsson hopes that researchers will build on the project’s successes to date, to dig deeper into the issue of industry decarbonisation.


REINVENT, carbon-intensive, industry, IPPC, climate, decarbonise, paper, steel, plastic, fossil-free, decarbonisation, pathways, climate mitigation

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