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Innovation is crucial for tough-to-decarbonize industries. Here’s why

Innovation is crucial for tough-to-decarbonize industries. Here’s why

Decarbonizing hard-to-abate industries will instead call for innovation, argue leaders at the Sustainable Development Impact Meetings. - Image: Unsplash/Shane McLendon

Written By

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda

This article is part of:Sustainable Development Impact Meetings

  • Industries like mining are especially complicated to decarbonize, since fossil fuels are baked into their processes.
  • Decarbonizing hard-to-abate industries will instead call for innovation, argue leaders at the Sustainable Development Impact Meetings.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings are being held from 18 to 22 September in New York.

Decarbonization is challenging — the greatest challenge to mankind, according to the IEA — but it’s even tougher to achieve in some sectors than others.

“Hard-to-abate sectors basically have fossil fuels baked into their processes,” explains Annie Hills, Senior Adviser on Innovation to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate in the US Department of State. “If you think of concrete, fossil fuels are literally a chemical output: you make CO2 when you make concrete.”

For Hills, who was part of a panel of experts in a session hosted by UpLink at the Sustainable Development Impact Meetings, the only way to get tough-to-decarbonize industries like shipping, aviation, mining and chemicals to net zero will be through innovation. “These industries can’t use the levers that we normally think about when we’re talking about decarbonization,” she points out. “So what we need to see is innovation.”

Fortunately, innovations — everything from energy storage solutions to carbon capture technology — are already underway. But there are blockers that need to be overcome if they’re to scale. Here’s what Hills and other leaders in the panel discussion Innovation for Tough-To-Decarbonize Industries say needs to happen to speed up innovation.

Opening the black box

For Vivek Salgaocar, Director and Co-Founder of the Vimson Group, a mining conglomerate, the innovations needed to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors like his own often already exist in other industries. “There’s a lot of technology that has already been deployed in other industries, and it just has to be tweaked a little bit for the use case in mining,” he explains.

The problem is often a lack of awareness. “The biggest challenge has been getting innovators to think of the mining sector as a use case for their technologies,” Salgaocar says. “We need to move away from this ‘black box’ situation, where entrepreneurs aren’t aware of these problems, even though they might have solutions that can address them.”

An increased appetite for risk

Innovation is by its very nature risky, which has made it a hard sell in some hard-to-abate industries. “We’re an inherently very conservative industry,” says Benedikt Sobotka, Chief Executive Officer at Eurasian Resources Group, a mining company. “Nobody has ever been fired for using the same processes they did 20 or 30 years ago.”

If positive change is to happen, a cultural shift when it comes to the appetite for risk-taking will have to take place. “We need to get a lot more risk-taking and innovation into this industry,” says Sobotka. “We have to change attitudes towards innovation.”

Encouragingly, change does seem to be happening already, says Shahrukh Shamim, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of EnviCore, a startup that helps companies in sectors like mining repurpose the waste they produce. “We’re seeing more openness,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of initiatives where companies are actively pursuing even early-stage technologies that they can nurture and take to a stage where they can commercially deploy them.”

Incentives to do the right thing

The moral obligation to drastically reduce emissions in hard-to-abate industries is clear. But if corporations are to invest the resources needed into building and scaling innovations, there must also be business incentives for doing so. That’s not currently the case, explains Sobotka.

“We are a commodity industry, so the prices are all the same, whether you produce a unit of metal with a very high carbon footprint or one with a very low carbon footprint. The price is identical, there’s no differentiation.” That needs to change if we are to encourage investment in innovation, Sobotka thinks. “There is very little reward for reducing emissions in your processes other than being a good citizen. There should be.”

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