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2021: When the hard climate stuff started looking doable

A roadmap is now emerging for decarbonizing the sectors that used to look most daunting, from steelmaking to shipping.

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The way we talk about what’s possible in the clean energy transition has changed dramatically in the last few years, and in no year more so than 2021.

Six years ago, around the time of the Paris Agreement, the standard narrative went something like this:

  • Wind, solar and battery technologies were rapidly falling in cost and looked increasingly promising for cleaning up the electricity system.
  • Those cheaper batteries would drive an electric revolution in the automotive industry, sooner or later, cleaning up much of the transportation sector.
  • Decarbonizing heavy industry, sea travel, air travel and long-distance trucking seemed daunting and distant, something to be figured out years down the road. 

As we close out 2021, I’m struck by how the first two premises went from slightly provocative to generally accepted. Renewables hit a liftoff trajectory; automakers around the world are going electric. Meanwhile, the third premise is finally obsolete. 

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Certain carbon-intensive processes remain hard problems, but many things that looked impossible to clean up now have clear pathways to real transformation. And the affected industries aren’t waiting until 2050 to put those plans into action — they’re doing it now.

When I mention this to folks who don’t work in these industries, they’re typically shocked and left feeling more optimistic. So I wanted to use the newsletter to flesh out the argument for a few of these tough-to-clean-up areas.

Steel

This dynamic is especially clear for steel production, which single-handedly releases more than 7 percent of global carbon emissions. It’s also a vital building block for much of the other low-carbon infrastructure, so the need for steel isn’t going anywhere. 

Recently, the steel industry coalesced around a two-pronged decarbonization strategy: use carbon-free hydrogen to reduce iron ore, in place of carboniferous approaches. Then melt your metal in electric arc furnaces powered by clean electricity. 

Unlike the companies setting 2050 net-zero targets and doing little right now, a number of steel companies are building clean factories today. 

Canary covered the Hybrit plant in northern Sweden that currently makes carbon-free iron for use in the steel industry:

Instead of soot from unburned carbon and large amounts of CO2, the Hybrit plant emits clouds of water vapor.

Global steel giant ArcelorMittal is building a plant in Hamburg, Germany that will use only hydrogen to reduce iron; once this process is figured out, the company will source hydrogen made by electrolysis powered by nearby wind farms. And it’s not just that company — a 2020 McKinsey report noted, All major European steel players are currently building or already testing hydrogen-based steel production processes.”

Critically, a global coalition of steel buyers now says they’ll pay for clean steel, as everyone from carmakers to ball-bearing producers comes under pressure to cut emissions from their supply chains.

The problem of emissions from steelmaking is far from solved — there’s nowhere near enough carbon-free hydrogen to supply the industry at this point, for one thing. And there’s plenty of work needed to make these processes perform at the levels the industry demands. As ArcelorMittal noted in a release about its Hamburg project, Many technical and practical challenges are ahead of us, which only can be solved in an operational plant.” 

Yet the fact that such plants are coming online now is not something I ever would have guessed just a few years ago.

Marine transport

The conventional wisdom was always that batteries may work for personal vehicles, but they won’t float a boat. Now that’s changing.

Canary Media’s Maria Gallucci recently profiled the up-and-coming electric boat sector. They’re still quite expensive even by boating standards, as wel as fairly limited in how long their batteries run for. 

But the fundamental technology is there for smaller vessels; it just needs to be honed. 

Large cargo ships remain a challenge, but work is underway on using hydrogen or even ammonia to power them across the seas. (Stay tuned next week for more on this.) Others are working on biofuels or synthetic fuels, which will require less of an overhaul of current ship designs.

Aviation

The year ended with some excitement in sustainable aviation: United flew 100 people from Chicago to Washington, D.C. using non-fossil fuel derived from — wait for it — leftover cooking grease and corn sugar.

Granted, that was just powering one of its two jet engines. But it was the first time commercial passengers had been carried by a 100 percent fossil-fuel-free engine, and it worked. Today, in 2021. As Maria points out:

Fuels made from waste materials have the potential to start curbing carbon dioxide pollution using the aircraft and fuel infrastructure we have now and will continue to use in the coming decades.

Eyewitness accounts — wait, make that nose-witness accounts — suggest the grease-powered engine did not make the cabin smell like french fries.

This is a far cry from running the whole aviation sector on low-carbon fuels. It’s not clear that even America’s prodigious fast-food consumption could supply airlines with the fuel they need. 

But it’s absolutely clear that we can stop thinking jets have to run on fossil fuels just because they always have. 

The realm of the possible keeps shifting

The point of all this is not that decarbonizing the tough sectors of society is suddenly taken care of. It’s going to require years of hard work and billions of dollars of investment. But in these three industries, and many others I’m not even getting into here, there’s increasing clarity around the path ahead, as well as funding and enthusiasm to make it happen.

We have ideas that we know can work; the risk of failure lies in the execution. Will technologies perform as well as they technically could? Will people accept the changes or fight them? And, always looming, will the rollouts happen in time to avert drastic change to the planet’s climate?

We don’t know the answers to those yet. Until we do, there’s at least some comfort in knowing that smart and well-resourced people have a to-do list and are busy crossing things off.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.