The net zero journey of industrial heartlands, cities and regions

The exterior of a building covered with green plants and green trees

The journey to net zero encompasses industrial heartlands, cities and regions. This can be achieved by co-deploying whole system solutions across sectors.

In our global energy transition, we cannot afford to leave any sector behind.

Our journey to net zero needs to gain momentum across all regions, from our industrial heartlands, across our cities and also reaching rural areas. So, how do we collectively reach net zero targets by 2050?

Employing a whole systems approach is key. It is only through co-creation and co-delivery of whole systems initiatives that solutions can be deployed at scale and pace.

This systematic approach will not only result in accelerating solutions for greening our industries but will also make our cities and regions more sustainable and resilient.

The UK Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC), funded by UK Research and Innovation, is working at pace to ensure that the pipeline of innovation continues to accelerate. It is also working at pace to ensure the solutions to achieve a fairer, greener future for all are achieved as quickly as possible.

Focus on large industrial plants

In order to take advantage of this whole systems approach, IDRIC’s work focuses on clusters of large industrial plants undertaking energy-intensive industries such as:

  • iron and steel
  • cement
  • refining and chemical, which have developed near our ports and estuaries.

These industrial clusters are major economic contributors to both their local economy and their communities, but they also account significantly for emissions.

In the UK, over 50% of carbon dioxide (CO2) industrial emissions come from these clusters. Industrial decarbonisation seeks to harness the scale of the industrial clusters to create opportunities to work together to find cost-effective solutions to decarbonise, while remaining competitive on a global scale.

Whether we are talking about the clustering of urbanisation or of industry, both offer opportunities for creative solutions working across defined areas of dense activity.

These solutions harness synergies that go beyond one emitter or one technology and require us to think more systemically. It links up different users and producers of energy by joining up the supply and demand chain as well as transcending sectors and applications.

Currently, over half of our world’s population lives in cities. They produce over 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions, whilst contributing to approximately 80% of global gross domestic product. Urbanisation is one of the global megatrends of our time, unstoppable and irreversible (UN Habitat, the strategic plan), and in the next 30 years urban population will reach two-thirds globally.

Working towards net zero goals

The facts surrounding high CO2 emissions from our cities are incontrovertible.

However, perhaps surprisingly, there are over 40 cities already achieving 100% of their electricity from renewable sources (for example, Addis Ababa, Brasilia and Basel). And, around 60 cities generate at least 70% of their energy from renewables. (Carbon neutral cities: Can we fight climate change without them?, Karim Elgendy)

Also, encouragingly, important initiatives such as the ‘Cities Race to Zero’, demonstrate that there are over 700 cities willing to unite and work towards the net zero goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Such progressive steps demonstrate positive change in the right direction, but the challenge is great. And let us not forget, many cities are also highly vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change, including human and economic losses.

Some of the key obstacles to overcome are embedded in the technologies we employ to build our cities, with the construction and operation of the buildings in them being responsible for 38% of emissions (World Energy Outlook 2021, International Energy Agency).

Energy efficient buildings with incorporated green roofs, high-performing glass or smart grids, can lead to additional benefits such as lowering costs for consumers or improving overall quality of life.

Building and developing cities

There are also huge changes that need to be made in how we build and develop our cities, both in terms of emissions related to construction and also the materials used. This is where the decarbonisation of industrial sectors has a significant role to play.

It will provide for example, the low carbon cement and steel that will be required in huge quantities to develop sustainable urban landscapes. Likewise, decarbonisation in the manufacture of fertilisers in industrial clusters, will result in more sustainable agricultural practices in rural regions.

Game-changing technologies, such as the production of low carbon hydrogen in industrial clusters for transport and heating in our cities will also become just as widespread.

It is interesting to note that the use of hydrogen is not new. Despite this, its deployment at scale and in a cost-effective way plus linking the supply and demand chain, still requires high levels of research and innovation. It demonstrates aptly how without a continuous pipeline of funded innovation, deployment of technology will stall.

Transition requires innovation, with half of the world’s emissions requiring technologies that are not yet commercially available (Net Zero by 2050, International Energy Agency). This is why research and innovation centres like IDRIC are playing a pivotal role in our global ambition to reach net zero.

Challenge to decarbonisation

The implementation of large-scale solutions for industry, buildings or mobility does not rely exclusively on technologies like carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) or hydrogen. For example, one challenge common to the decarbonisation of industrial and urban clusters is finance.

Political will and leadership will be crucial in managing transitions, securing private sector buy-in and facilitating the behavioural change needed for a sustainable transition to net zero. Supportive policies are also needed to balance the economic and societal costs and benefits of technological change. Examples of this might involve public procurement requiring that all public projects use low-carbon construction materials.

Concurrently, work can be done with stakeholders to understand the positive synergy of adopting new technologies, for example, energy from waste, where waste incineration with CCUS supplies district heating systems.

Reaching net zero is both a team and a whole systems effort whether in cities, rural areas or industrial heartlands.

It is only by working across industry, research, policymakers, business, finance and local communities, that we will be able to co-develop innovative, inclusive, and sustainable pathways for reaching net zero targets by 2050. Where no sector is left behind.

For more information, find it on the IDRIC website.

This is the integrated website of the seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK.
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