The role of industries in climate change mitigation

In August 2021 and February this year, respectively, the IPCC released the first and second part of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). These parts covered the latest advances in climate science, impacts of climate change, adaptation and vulnerability. For the third part of the AR6, the Working Group assessed the literature on mitigation of climate change (scientific, technological, environmental, economic, and social aspects thereof). Here we discuss the findings of this third part of the assessment report.


Greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase

Global net anthropogenic emissions – including CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes, net CO2 from land use, land use change and forestry, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases – have continued to increase across all major groups of greenhouse gases (GHGs), between 1990-2019. Although these emissions have continued to rise, the rate at which they did so, was lower between 2010 and 2019 compared to the decade before.

Between those major groups of GHGs, fluorinated gases were observed to have the highest relative growth, with emissions of 354% in 2019 relative to 2010. ,Fluorinated gases, are used in a variety of applications, including refrigerants in refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump equipment, in the production of aluminium, and in the electronics sector. Although they are often used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances, they have a warming effect of up to 25 000 times greater than CO2. ,Regulations are already in place to cut fluorinated gas emissions by 2030.

Following that group, are CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes, with emissions of 167% in 2019 relative to 2010. CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes dropped in the first half of 2020 due to responses to the COVID-19 pandemic but rose again by the end of the year. Relative to 2019, 2020 saw an annual average reduction of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes of ± 5.8 % (± 2.2 GtCO2).


The majority of emissions is allocated to industry

Globally, the net anthropogenic GHG emissions have increased since 2010 across all major sectors. Emissions reductions in CO2 from fossil fuels and industrial processes – due to improvements in energy intensity of GDP and carbon intensity of energy – have been less than emissions increase from rising global activity levels in industry, energy supply, transport, agriculture and buildings.

In 2019 approximately 34% and 24% of the total net anthropogenic GHG emissions were attributed to the energy supply sector and industry, respectively. Reallocation of emissions from electricity and heat production to the sectors using the final energy – being the industry and buildings sectors – increase their relative emissions shares. In this frame, the majority (34%) of emissions in 2019 is allocated to industry.

Where it remained constant for the transport sector, the average annual GHG emissions growth slowed for the energy supply and industry, between 2010 and 2019, compared to the previous decade. There was a slight increase in energy efficiency worldwide, leading to a reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and industrial processes. However, the increased total production and consumption worldwide and with that the increased emissions since 2010, were greater than the emissions reductions.



Lower costs and increased use of low-emission technologies

Between 2010-2019, the unit costs of some low-emission technologies, including solar energy, wind energy, and lithium-ion batteries, have fallen with 85%, 55%, and 85%, respectively. There have also been large increases in their deployment, with regional variations. The cost reductions and increased use of these low-emission technologies was due to a mixture of policy instruments including public R&D, funding for demonstration and pilot projects. Tailored policies and comprehensive policies addressing innovation have been effective in supporting innovation and rapid introduction of low-emission technologies and with that contributed to overcoming distributional, social and environmental impacts.

The mitigation of climate change and the achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals can be supported by digital technologies such as Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence, if appropriately governed. Energy management and energy efficiency can be improved, and the adoption of low-emission technologies can be promoted whilst creating economic opportunities.nn


Decarbonisation of the industry

With the current emissions trend – considering policies implemented by the end of 2020, and without further strengthening of policies beyond 2020 – the world could see a global temperature increase of 3.2 °C by the end of this century..

It will be possible for the industrial sector to reach net-zero CO2 emissions, albeit challenging. Reducing industry emissions depends on the ‘’sustainability transition’’ of complete value chains and on the adoption of production processes using low and zero GHG-emitting electricity, hydrogen, fuels, and carbon management.

The use of steel, cement, plastics, and other materials and their increasing use globally play a big role in industrial emissions. Reducing emissions can be supported by sustainable options for demand management, materials efficiency, and circular material flows. However, the application varies between regions and different materials. There may be a greater mitigation potential to be discovered when these options are given more attention: due to their novelty, these sustainable options are generally not considered in recent global- or national scenarios. Many low- to zero- GHG intensity production processes for virgin metals, building materials and chemicals are at the pilot to near-commercial or even at the commercial stage. For chemicals, emission reductions would depend on a life cycle approach including plastics recycling and fuel, feedstock switching and the adoption of carbon capture technologies. Material efficiency and circularity, electrification, and low emission fuels could contribute to the decarbonisation of the light industry, mining, and manufacturing.

The report is also shedding light on the influence of changes in socio-cultural factors, infrastructure use and end-use technology adoption in reducing industrial emissions. With the shift in demand towards sustainable consumption, industries would be driven to provide long-lasting repairable products resulting in the phasing out of number and frequency of unsustainable production processes thereby reducing industrial emissions. Establishing networks for recycling, remanufacturing, repurposing, and reuse of materials combined with green procurement to access material-efficient products and services, will have a significant impact in reducing industrial GHG emissions.

Environmental Policies driving mitigation and adaptation efforts

There has been an unprecedented expansion of policies and regulations addressing climate change mitigation in the past few years. It has helped in avoiding emissions which would have otherwise occurred. It has also influenced investments in low-GHG technologies and infrastructure. With the European Union leading in the forefront, the intensity and coverage of policies also varies across sectors and regions. Progress on the alignment of financial flows towards the goals of the Paris Agreement remains slow and tracked climate finance flows are distributed unevenly across regions and sectors.

Industries that are dependent on emissions intensive and highly traded basic materials are exposed to international competition. International cooperation and coordination in such industries may be particularly important in changing the status-quo. For sustainable industrial transitions, broad and sequential national and sub-national policy strategies focusing on regional contexts will be required. The report suggests a combination of policy packages including: transparent GHG accounting and standards; demand management; materials and energy efficiency policies; R&D and niche markets for commercialisation of low emission materials and products; economic and regulatory instruments to drive market uptake; high quality recycling, low-emissions energy and other abatement infrastructure (e.g. for Carbon Capture and Storage); and socially inclusive phase-out plans of emissions intensive facilities within the context of just transitions.

Along with many countries like Germany and France, a growing number of cities are also setting climate targets, including net-zero GHG targets. However, given the global reach of urban consumption patterns and supply chains, the full potential for reducing consumption-based urban emissions to net-zero GHG can be met only when emissions beyond cities’ administrative boundaries are also addressed. In order to make these strategies more effective, strong cooperation and coordination with national and sub-national governments, industry, and civil society.


Now is the time to act

Accelerated and equitable climate action in mitigating, and adapting to, climate change impacts is critical to sustainable development. Many options are now available in all sectors to offer substantial potential to reduce net emissions by 2030. Through improved energy and material efficiency, circular material flows, electrification, and the development and deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies, industry has a huge role to play in climate mitigation. There are mitigation options which are feasible to deploy at scale in the near term.

We only have a few years in front of us to realize a sustainable, liveable future for all. Changing the current course of events will require immediate, ambitious and concrete efforts to reduce emissions, build resilience, conserve ecosystems, and drastically increase finance for adaptation and addressing loss and damage.



Xenia Mutter | Materials Expert

Nikhil Varghese | Environmental Regulations Expert


IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926.001

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