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Products from the industrial sector include everything from drugs, cutlery and glass to cars, bicycles, buildings and bridges, and they are a constant – and in many cases indispensable – part of our everyday lives today. The industrial sector is also the backbone of Germany’s economy. Industrial companies in the country made a turnover of 1,893 billion euros in 2017 – contributing nearly a quarter of the total value created. North Rhine-Westphalia plays a leading role here in comparison to other German states. Every fifth euro of the country’s total industrial turnover is generated by the manufacturing companies located in the state. This comes thanks to its major sectors in particular, which include the industrial engineering, chemicals, iron, steel, automotive and energy industries. Industry is the foundation for growth and prosperity within North Rhine-Westphalia as well: Not only does it contribute significantly to the state’s GDP; it’s also one of the largest employers in North Rhine-Westphalia. Around one fifth of the working population is employed directly by the industrial sector. This figure doesn’t include the numerous service providers who work for industrial companies.
Industrial CO2 emissions – an overview
Thanks to modern systems technology, factory chimneys and their smoke and soot have now disappeared from North Rhine-Westphalia’s industrial landscape. Companies’ production processes have also become significantly more efficient in recent decades. This also has an impact on the greenhouse gases they emit: Compared with figures from 1990, North Rhine-Westphalia’s industrial sector has reduced its annual emissions by some 40 million metric tonnes of CO2e – from 94.3 million tonnes in 1990 to 54.7 million tonnes in 2017. This corresponds to a reduction of over 42 per cent, which exceeds the state’s overall emissions savings of 25 per cent in the same period. Nonetheless, the industrial sector continues to be one of North Rhine-Westphalia’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases, amounting to a share of 20 per cent. At the national level, industrial companies produce 20.7 per cent of Germany’s overall emissions.
Emissions produced by the industrial sector can be primarily attributed to the Energy Intensive Industries of Germany (EID), that is, the chemical, steel, non-ferrous metals and minerals, glass and paper industries. They manufacture basic materials for infrastructure, buildings, machines and consumer goods and produce a majority of the state’s sector-related greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Manufacturing a metric tonne of cement generates around 0.56 tonnes of CO2, and 1.36 tonnes of CO2 are produced for every tonne of steel. These emissions are broken down into energy and process-related emissions: Around two thirds of the total emissions produced by energy-intensive industries can be attributed to combustion processes and electricity supplied in house, while production processes are responsible for approximately one third of the emissions. Indirect emissions caused by purchasing district heating and electricity from other companies are to be figured in addition; however, they are accounted for in the energy sector.
Industrial climate protection:
How industrial companies can drive solutions
At the same time, the industrial sector’s products make it an essential player in efforts to protect the climate. Basic materials industries in particular supply materials that are indispensable for forward-looking solutions. Insulation produced by the chemicals and glass industry, for example, is absolutely essential for renovating buildings and constructing low-energy buildings. Glass and silicones are just a couple of the materials required to construct photovoltaic systems and wind turbines. And an expansion of the power grids is required for the energy transition, but it’s equally impossible to imagine this succeeding without steel and concrete as it is to picture the field of e-mobility without lightweight materials such as aluminium and carbon fibres.
Companies are continually working to improve their production processes with the goal of reducing emissions during production and closing material loops. These efforts include boosting energy and resource efficiency, using new process technologies, changing energy sources and making their product portfolios more climate friendly overall.
However, completely new approaches are necessary to make industrial production largely carbon neutral. This requires innovative new technologies, new forms of cooperation between industry and government at the national and international levels as well as suitable economic conditions. A wide range of new technologies are already in use today. In the area of steel production, for example, green hydrogen is being tested as an alternative to coke. Closing material loops in keeping with the principle of the circular economy will also be a crucial factor in making business activities more sustainable, not only because this saves resources but also because less energy is required for production using recycled materials – which means less CO2 is emitted.
While some sectors can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions significantly with the help of new and innovative production technologies, the greenhouse gas emissions in some segments of the basic materials industry (cement, lime, glass) are partially linked to raw materials for which there are no suitable substitutes and therefore cannot be avoided. Methods that capture the carbon directly from industrial waste gas offer a solution for this lack of substitutes. In a subsequent step, the CO2 can continue to be used as a valuable raw material for plastics or chemicals, for example (CCU – carbon capture and usage) or can be stored (CCS – carbon capture and storage).
Enhancing and interlinking innovative technologies makes it possible to address the challenges posed by climate change in an efficient manner. One prerequisite for this is setting up the respective required infrastructures. Providing the industrial sector with a secure supply of energy and renewable resources, such as hydrogen, methanol and ammonia will be crucial for climate-neutral production in future, as Germany’s available potential will not be sufficient to cover demand. This situation will also require taking an interdisciplinary approach to thinking in the national and international contexts so sectors, cycles and infrastructure can be linked together in an optimal manner.
In other words, the transition to a climate-neutral industrial sector is a cross-sector and social challenge that requires courage to make changes, acceptance and a diverse range of new and innovative approaches. And this challenge also presents significant opportunities, new business models and potential competitive advantages for an industrial state like North Rhine-Westphalia, including when it comes to developing and mastering new technologies, making the necessary infrastructure available at the right time, marketing new products and exporting these products and technologies.