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Electric, hydrogen, and modal shifts among pathways to a net-zero carbon environment for transportation

As global sectors like power, buildings and light-duty transport reduce their carbon emissions, the share of emissions emitted by heavy industry and heavy-duty transport will grow, likely placing more pressure on these sectors to reduce their output. The good news, though, is that the ability of these two sectors to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by mid-century is possibly, and economically feasible, says a new report from the Energy Transition Commission (ETC).

In a report titled Mission Possible: Reaching Net-Zero Carbon Emissions from Harder-to-Abate Sectors by Mid-Century, ETC said the cost to fully decarbonize cement, steel, plastics, trucking, shipping and aviation – which together represent 30% of energy emissions today and could increase to 60% by mid-century as other sectors lower their emissions – amounts to about 0.5% of global GDP.

“This report sets out an optimistic but completely realistic message – we can build a zero-carbon economy with a minor cost to economic growth. We should now commit to achieving this by 2060 at the latest, and put in place the policies and investments required to deliver it,” said Adair Turner, co-chair of the ETC.

ETC brings together a diverse group of leaders from across the energy landscape -energy producers, energy users, equipment suppliers, investors, non-profit organizations and academics from the developed and developing world – with the goal to accelerate change towards low-carbon energy systems that enable robust economic development and limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2 deg. C and as close as possible to 1.5 deg. C.

The Mission Possible report was developed by the Commissioners with the support of the ETC Secretariat, provided by SYSTEMIQ. It draws upon a set of analyses carried out by Material Economics, McKinsey & Company, University Maritime Advisory Services and SYSTEMIQ for and in partnership with the ETC, as well as a broader literature review, the group said.

The report’s results included a six-month consultation process from nearly 200 experts across the globe that contributed to the report, including Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE).

“[In the report] it’s electric, it’s hydrogen, and interesting ideas about charging,” Roeth told FreightWaves. “For instance, early on we might charge these electric trucks at stations but [eventually] maybe we’re charging these trucks on the way [with embedded charging along roadways] or with overhead wires.”

The report notes that in heavy-duty transport, electric trucks and buses that are either fully battery or utilize hydrogen fuel cells, will likely become cost-competitive by 2030. Shipping and aviation are more likely to remain dependent on liquid fuels, ETC said, but that the use of bio or synthetic fuels could reduce carbon output significantly.

“Improved energy efficiency, greater logistics efficiency and some level of modal shift for both freight and passenger transport could reduce the size of the transition challenge,” ETC noted.

While the report cites electric trucks as one solution, Roeth said it will take more than just electric power to provide for the needs of transport.

“Electric is not a fad, it’s going to be a big part of this solution; but for long haul we’re going to need hydrogen or another fuel to assist,” Roeth noted.

While there is a price to pay for carbon reduction, ETC doesn’t believe it would be significant. For instance, the use of green steel use would add approximately $180 to the price of a car, it said. Green shipping would add less than 1% to the price of an imported pair of jeans and low-carbon plastics would add just one cent on the price of a bottle of soda.

In places like India, the reduction of carbon emissions is becoming a health emergency.

“Given the increasing problems with air pollution throughout India, the decarbonization of heavy industry and heavy-duty transport is crucial, not only to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, but to improve the quality of life and health of citizens,” ETC said. “The Indian industry is growing and has the opportunity to build new industrial capacity with state-of-the-art technology.”

The report goes on to suggest all sectors of the economy could reduce carbon emissions, but not without some challenges. One is the direct and indirect electrification (through hydrogen) that will likely play a significant role in most sectors of industry and transport. This will lead to a sharp increase in power demand – growing 4-6 times from today’s 20,000 TWh to reach around 100,000 TWh by mid-century, ETC said.

“Hydrogen use will almost certainly increase dramatically (7-11 times by mid-century), with two routes to zero-carbon hydrogen – electrolysis, which will likely dominate in the long term, and steam methane reforming plus carbon capture and storage,” the report noted.

Bioenergy and bio-feedstock will also help efforts, but ETC said that it should be “tightly regulated to avoid adverse environmental impact (such as deforestation), and its use should be focused on priority sectors where alternatives are least available or more costly, such as aviation and plastics feedstocks.”

Among the approaches the report suggests to achieving net-zero carbon emissions are a tightening of carbon-intensity mandates on industrial processes; more efficient heavy-duty transport and reducing the carbon content of consumer products; introducing adequate carbon pricing; and encouraging a shift from a linear to a circular economy through appropriate regulation on materials efficiency and recycling.

More investment in the green industry through R&D support, deployment support, and the use of public procurement to create initial demand for “green” products and services is also needed as is accelerating public-private collaboration to build necessary energy and transport infrastructure.

The key to accomplishing any reduction, the report argues, is to create a more circular economy. Doing so could reduce by 40% globally CO2 emissions in industry sectors by 2050 and by 56% in Europe.

In North America, part of this is aligning public policy across states.

“The role of policy makers and the coordination of polices is important,” Roeth noted, saying that harmonizing the rules is critical. “You’ve got cities like London banning [gas power] and Mexico City and others … the whole policy part is important” to ensure goals are aligned across countries and cities.

To read the full report, visit the ETC website

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]