Energy Transition: Project of the century

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The goal is ambitious: by 2050, Europe will be the first continent in the world to become climate-neutral. In July 2021, the European Commission launched a comprehensive package of measures to help it achieve this goal. By 2030, these measures are expected to play a key role in reducing net greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by at least 55 percent over 1990 levels. 

But tremendous efforts are also being made outside Europe to reorganize both the production and utilization of energy. The objective is to minimize emissions of harmful pollutants – and thus halt global climate change.

For energy suppliers and the process industry, the energy transition brings about a far-reaching set of chanes. New high-performance infrasructure and processes must be established while innovative technologies and solutions are developed and implemented. It is apparent that there are basically four approaches to becoming climate neutral:

  • Increased energy efficiency
  • Application of renewable energies
  • Use of power-to-X technologies
  • Emission capture

It is not enough for companies to focus on or even limit themselves to just one of these approaches – especially companies in the process industry. It is necessary to pursue all paths at the same time in order to ensure this project of the century is a rousing success. 

We have to make investments in climate-neutral technologies now."

Dr. Berit ErlachHead of the "Energy Systems of the Future" (ESYS)

Dr. Erlach, how important is the process industry in achieving global climate goals?

The Industry is responsible for roughly one third of global greenhouse gas emissions and therefore has a key role to play in achieving our climate goals. The Production of basic materials such as steel, cement, chemicals or plastics is particularly important. To keep the increase in global temperatures to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, we need to find ways of producing these basic materials in a climate-neutral process or replacing them with other materials. The EU’s goal is to be climate neutral by 2050, so all industrial processes must be converted by then.   

What are the most important levers for becoming climate-neutral in the process industry?

There are a total of three main levers: the first is to reduce the need for emissions-intensive basic materials. More climate-friendly materials can be used, for example, including more wood instead of steel and concrete in the construction sector. More durable products can also reduce the need for basic materials, for example when it comes to plastics. The second lever involves closing material cycles through high-quality recycling. And the third lever is a shift toward climate-neutral production processes - something that will require substantial amounts of green electricity and hydrogen by 2050.  

Where do you see the biggest challenges moving forward?

I see two major challenges. First, we have to make investments in climate-neutral technologies now, because industrial plants often remain in operation for decades. Plants that are built today will still be running in 2050. Any production plant built in the next few years needs to already be climate-neutral or capable of being converted to climate-neutral operation at a later date. Right now, however, climate-neutral processes are not yet profitable on the market because CO2 prices are still too low. Additional support from policymakers is therefore needed in the years ahead. Secondly, policymakers must provide incentives for ambitious climate protection in Europe, but at the same time prevent carbon leakage – the migration of industry to countries with less ambitious climate protection policies. In this respect, it would be a major step forward if the EU were to succeed in forging an alliance for ambitious climate protection, especially with the USA and China. 

Download Issue 03.2021

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Dr. Berit Erlach

Dr. Berit Erlach is Head of the “Energy Systems of the Future” ( ESYS) coordination office. With the ESYS initiative, the science academies acatech – German Academy of Science and Engineering, Leopoldina and the Union of Academies provide input for the debate on the challenges and opportunities of Germany’s energy transition. As part of the academy project, more than 100 experts from the fields of science and research are developing options for action to implement a secure, affordable and sustainable energy supply. The project is sponsored by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

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