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A Magazine for Sheffield

If we’re to have any hope of decarbonising heavy industry, we must consume less

Greener processes will only take us so far – the truth is we simply can’t consume ever more on a finite planet.

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The Tata steelworks at Port Talbot are among the largest in Europe.

Grubb on Wikimedia Commons.

This year’s Festival of Debate had a whole strand focusing on climate, which meant a fascinating range of events for climate campaigners like myself.

Many of these events focused on consuming less, recycling more, and securing better protection for the natural world in response to the crisis. Another, ‘The Green Giants: Industry in 2050' (which you can watch back below), was on a subject which could either be seen as a complementary or a competing approach to tackling climate change: decarbonising heavy industry. It's a subject few people feel they have much influence over, but deserves to be more widely understood.

There’s a ready acceptance that substantial government support will be required to enable the expensive and risky projects involved to take off. There are always complex questions about whether committing public money to each specific project is good value or if there are better alternatives.

But there is also a much wider and more fundamental question here: what total volume of new industrial activity can fit within our emissions reductions targets? Even when it provides decarbonised processes from the get-go, new infrastructure will inevitably be built using raw materials which are energy-intense to manufacture. It is the answer to this wider question which I believe current national policy is getting wrong. Let me explain.


Successive governments have been been proud of this country’s record on climate change. Progress is measured against five-yearly ‘carbon budgets’, which define the maximum amount of greenhouse gas which can be emitted whilst meeting national climate commitments.

We have remained within all three of our carbon budgets so far, which ran up to the end of 2022. But this has happened largely due to a shift towards lower carbon technologies through measures which save money anyway, and a move towards a more service-based, rather than industrial, economy.

The remaining budgets will be much more difficult to stay within. At the same time, with a growing scientific consensus that the safe limit for global temperature rise is 1.5°C, as opposed to the 2°C limit on which the UK’s carbon budgets up to the end of 2032 are based, there is a very strong case to reduce them for everyone’s safety. For that reason local and regional authorities across the country, including all those in South Yorkshire, have set their own more stringent climate targets.

Wind turbine south east of Grange Farm geograph org uk 3861896

Many processes can be electrified – if the electricity is zero carbon, those processes will be too.

Christine Johnstone on Wikimedia Commons.

Giant problems

So what technologies are available to allow heavy industry to decarbonise? Many processes can be electrified. Provided the electricity supply is zero carbon, those processes will be too. Decarbonising electricity is another industrial decarbonisation exercise in itself.

'Green giant' is not a precise technical term. It refers to the huge industrial plants that account for a large proportion of the emissions of industrialised countries. These include manufacturers of steel, cement, glass and other raw materials which are energy-intense to produce. In the UK, many are based in six large industrial clusters around the coast.

These are home to oil and gas refineries, chemical and plastic manufacturers. They are designed to be close to ports, high-capacity electricity connections and in most cases, offshore oil and gas wells. The infrastructure investments needed to decarbonise all these plants can be seen as anything from 'the unacceptable cost of net zero' to 'the economic opportunity of climate change', depending on who you speak to.

There are many different technologies which can be used to decarbonise heavy industry. The least controversial are those that improve processes to enable them to use less energy, or switch to using sustainable energy. These measures may be self-funding, or they may need some upfront finance to build new plants as part of a transition.

Power failure

Many processes which do not already use electricity can be converted to do so. The electricity supply has become less emissions-intense as low-carbon sources of generation replace fossil fuels. But getting to the point of zero-carbon is another huge challenge. While power is considered to be a different sector to that of the manufacturing plants discussed here, it's another industry facing huge – probably insurmountable – challenges in meeting expectations of future capacity while completely decarbonising.

Offshore wind power has progressed well but is encountering several constraints, including delays in upgrading the transmission grid, in common with all power sources. Other renewable energy technologies lack sufficient government support.

Even if we’re prepared to accept their cost and environmental impacts, nuclear projects are not being built fast enough, with only one station, the much delayed Hinckley Point C, under construction. Smaller reactors are also pencilled in as part of the mix but no design is yet fully developed.

Power stations from which carbon emissions are captured are also part of government plans. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves fitting equipment to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gases of industrial plants and power stations, and transporting it (usually by pipelines) to permanent storage sites.

Every element of this is technically complex and expensive, and most schemes underperform. But in a world increasingly desperate for climate solutions, CCS is becoming an ever-bigger factor in many countries’ climate strategies. The number of schemes in operation now exceeds 40, with more on the way.

Captured market

Many powerful interested parties are talking up the potential of CCS.

These include developers, politicians and unions, who see job opportunities for their members. In the UK, we hold a genuine advantage – an abundance of spent oil and gas fields in the North Sea, suitable for storing carbon dioxide. This brings into play a powerful CCS lobby of wealthy oil and gas companies.

Now we have a situation where multiple CCS projects, including some based at all six coastal clusters, are competing for government cash to enable them to go ahead. Many of these are for hydrogen production – a potentially low-carbon fuel – and for power stations. But similar CCS schemes around the world have a particularly bad track record.

One recent controversy came from the UK’s biggest steel-makers, Tata Steel at Port Talbot and Jingye at Scunthorpe, deciding to close their blast furnaces. These use vast amounts of gas and coal, are worn out and run at a loss. Tata and Jingye propose replacing them with electric arc furnaces, which could potentially run on electricity from zero-carbon sources but need much less labour.

Torpedo wagons at Scunthorpe Steelworks geograph org uk 5844994

Steel-making firm Jingye have decided to close the blast furances at Scunthorpe.

Gareth James on Wikimedia Commons.

Trade unions have called on these companies and the government to invest more in keeping existing equipment running for longer, and in building new plant to retain more steel-making capacity. This could save thousands of jobs but involves long-term energy price support – effectively including fossil fuel subsidies, so these plants can compete with all the other subsidised steel-makers around the world.

Running out of options

Most of that extra new plant would run on hydrogen, likely to be produced from natural gas and relying on CCS to capture the resultant carbon dioxide emissions. Hydrogen can also be produced by electrolysis, using electricity from renewables and water but sourcing enough electricity would be extremely difficult.

If redundancies are made from the steelworks, many other 'green' industrial schemes could potentially benefit from the pool of skilled workers at both towns. What is currently lacking is a co-ordinated national plan which seeks to match new schemes to where the skills are.

In May, a High Court ruling again found the UK government had failed to comply with a legal requirement to demonstrate how its climate strategy will meet future carbon budgets.

Among others, the main failing was an assumption that all new emissions reduction projects will perform as specified, with CCS schemes being the worst “offenders”. Now the government has been ordered to revise its strategy. Having already made the most optimistic assumptions it could get away with about every viable technology, it's running out of options.

Society is still conditioned to the idea that we can fully address climate change while consuming more and travelling more. It's a message repeated so often by politicians that it sticks. Overcoming our problems through technology and new industries alone is an appealing idea, with tangible short-term benefits. But it will not work.

We will eventually realise this, hopefully before the volume of new homes and infrastructure we build is exceeded by that damaged and destroyed through extreme weather events.

Increasingly, campaigners are questioning the viability of endless growth in industrialised economies and are focusing on alternative solutions. The evidence the government itself has in front of it proves this is the only possible way forwards.

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