Industrial Heat Has A Bigger Environmental Impact Than Flying


Why It Matters

The onus when it comes to climate change is often put on the individual, with many of us asking ourselves: What can I do (or not do) to combat climate change? However, we won’t solve the biggest issues without making big changes, those that are beyond one person. One of those is the heavy industry and specifically industrial heat.

Heavy industry is an industry that uses large and heavy equipment and facilities. Example industries include oil, mining, chemical and steel. Addressing the climate crisis requires looking at what is causing serious issues within those industries, such as the large amounts of heat they pump into the atmosphere – not just focusing on more individualistic issues like flying for holidays.


There have been a number of recent studies conducted into the impact of industrial heat. Here, we have summarised the key takeaways to give you an overview of their findings and help you understand the industry’s impact relative to other climate crisis causes.

The original sources are two reports: ‘Low-Carbon Heat Solutions for Heavy Industry: Sources, Options, and Costs Today‘, from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, and an Innovation for Cool Earth Forum (ICEF) paper which took the findings of the report and presented a Roadmap forward.

These reports were covered in the Vox article: This climate problem is bigger than cars and much harder to solve.

Key Takeaways

Here are the key points of the reports:

  • We don’t hear about industrial heat as consumers because we don’t see it directly. The sector is dominated by little known but large industrial firms operating outside of public view.
  • We need net zero carbon emissions to slow down the effects of climate change; negative emissions are the ultimate goal but this is step one.
  • To do this we need to decarbonise (reduce or remove carbon compounds released from processing) in every sector that uses fossil fuels.
  • There are some sectors where we do not yet know how to decarbonise the process, but many we do.
    • To decarbonise a process, the industries would need to switch to a different fuel source. The top alternatives are:
      • Biomass – wood chips or biodiesel can be combusted instead of fossil fuels.
      • Electricity – high electric currents can be used to melt materials like steel.
      • Hydrogen – uses methane and either a steam process or electrolysis, a greener, low carbon produced hydrogen can be created for use.
      • Nuclear – Nuclear power plant reactors give off heat, which can be carried as steam, and applied to the industrial process.
    • Another alternative is carbon capture and storage (CCS). Rather than decarbonising, CO2 emissions are contained and buried. This is not an ideal solution. 
      • It is often the cheapest alternative to fossil fuels but it’s a short term solution and doesn’t fully deal with the fact we will need to move away from fossil fuels at some point in the future as reserves dry up.
    • All the alternatives to fossil fuels have drawbacks and limitations, such as:
      • High costs – many of these solutions will raise operational costs for the firms.
      • Not high enough heat for some industrial processing – for example, wood chips do not burn at a high enough temperature to melt steel or cement. 
      • New infrastructure – many of these alternatives will need new pipelines and other infrastructure to work, but this could be provided by governments if they invested.
  • Heavy industry is responsible for around 22% of global CO2 emissions. 
    • Compare that to other sources of CO2 emissions worldwide:
      • All cars: 6%
      • All planes: 2% 
  • About half of that, some 10%, comes for the combustion to produce process of high temperature industrial products, namely:
    • Cement
    • Steel
    • Chemical 
  • We need more research done to figure out how to make greener industrial heat cheaper for the sector.

The Solutions

Big Picture Solution

We need a renewable-based grid that provides enough power for heavy industry’s needs. It needs to be cheaper enough for the sector and have the support of governments to create the needed infrastructure.

An industrial problem requires policy change to make progress. Consumer demands might fall on deaf ears but governmental policy makers will ensure industrial firms hear them. It won’t be easy but it can be done.

Individual Actions

Unless you work in the industrial sector, environmental policy or another related arm of government, there won’t be a huge amount you can do. However, you can speak to your local MP and raise concerns about industrial heat, especially when there are potential big industry moves in the news or votes on policy changes that could result in more industrial heat. 

References & Sources

For an expanded read of the key takeaways, check out the Vox article: This climate problem is bigger than cars and much harder to solve.

To read the complete reports, check out: