A green transition for heavy industry: What if simple solutions existed?
The EU Industry Days have kicked off! Around 1,500 stakeholders will converge in Brussels over the next two days to debate different pathways to achieve a modern, clean and fair economy in Europe. Sustainability, digitalisation, investment and globalisation – these are all key topics which participants will address, seeking to find ways of conciliating industrial competitiveness with citizen empowerment, regional revitalisation and development of smart technologies. These discussions are all the more important this year following the agreement in December’s COP 24 for a rulebook to implement the Paris agreement. Policy has paved the way, now industry must follow suit.
The challenge of decarbonising the industrial sector is particularly tricky, due to the sheer number of jobs which it sustains: today, one in every five jobs in Europe is industry-related (total of 50 million jobs), generating about a quarter of the EU’s GDP. But the industrial sector is also one of the biggest contributors to the EU’s carbon footprint with a total of 857 MtCO2 emitted per year – greater than the impact from all of Europe’s coal power plants put together (775 MtCO2).
Last week was a crucial one for the German energy transition, as results from the Coal Commission’s report were made public, announcing a phase-out from coal by 2038 in a country were an estimated 60,000 jobs are directly and indirectly dependent on brown coal. To keep up with the schedule, German coal regions of North Rhine-Westphalia, Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt need to tackle two interlinked challenges – decarbonising, while also safeguarding people’s livelihood. The German government has committed €1.3 billion per year, over 20 years, to support the country’s coal-mining states in converting their mining industry and their energy mix, still heavily coal-dependent. This will require systemic change – sustainable pathways that are economically and socially inclusive.
In Europe, the challenge extends beyond the coal sector: we need to invest in concrete options to transition the steel, chemical, cement, automotive, building, electronic and building sectors, all the while creating long-term opportunities for the many. Regions in transition, start-ups and established corporates have been working with EIT Climate-KIC’s Re-Industrialise Flagship to test out ground-breaking solutions to these issues in real-life conditions. “Re-Industrialise” means just that – transforming industrial activities from old to new. It means finding sustainable and climate-friendly investment opportunities which can overhaul or disrupt the way an industry works. For this, the flagship focuses on two regions: the Silesian Metropolitan Area, Poland’s largest industrial region with important challenges stemming from its local mining industry; and Germany’s North-Rhine-Westphalia. These regions are arguably two of Europe’s biggest transition challenges. That is the whole point. The regions act as Transition Laboratories – or “Super-Labs”, as called by the EU’s Final Report of the High-Level Panel of the European Decarbonisation Pathways – that tackle complex regional challenges through systemic innovation.
In both regions we have found that the transition is not always about re-inventing the wheel or investing in cutting- edge technologies. Quite often it’s about being smart – and creative – about how to repurpose what already exists and intervening in multiple points to create a systemic change.
In Silesia, the largest remaining coal mining region in the EU, we are looking at how to transition decades of specialisation in carbon-intensive activities into new jobs. EIT Climate-KIC pilots in Silesia look at how existing capabilities in high-emission activities could be leveraged to exploit low-emission market opportunities. Concretely, a tool is being developed to identify opportunities for experts from the mining industry to work in new businesses. This is a potential breakthrough for the EU’s ‘just transition’ conundrum.
Other initiatives are conducted hand-in-hand with regional authorities. The Online S3 Platform provides a data- and experience-sharing tool for European regions looking to develop smart specialisation strategies. EIT Climate-KIC supports two carbon-intensive regions in Poland in customising the platform’s tools to work towards their specific regional challenges. The platform aims to increase the attractiveness, competitiveness and resilience of local economies through economic specialisation and diversification.
In North-Rhine-Westphalia, leading energy company ENGIE is working through the Hydistrict project with EIT Climate-KIC and Zukunft durch Innovation, the regional innovation agency, to identify opportunities and barriers to implement hydrogen-based alternatives to the region’s existing carbon intensive infrastructure. Yet another project in the region looks at decarbonising the steel industry, and how this could result in a re-organisation of regional value chains and geographic clusters.
While these projects are at an early stage, they demonstrate two things: the industry – big and small players alike – are seeing real opportunities in the transition’s immense challenge; and regions widely considered as the ones with the greatest challenge of all actually have a great deal to gain. Re-Industrialise’s pilot projects are small stepping stones on a long pathway, but the potential they can lead to is massive.
To find out more about our flagship, visit: https://re-industrialise.climate-kic.org/
Ada Marmion is Re-Industrialise Programme Manager at EIT Climate-KIC
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