Public investment much needed to meet climate targets


To meet our climate goals and support the sustainable transition of Flemish industry, additional public investment is desperately needed, some top Flemish scientists argue in an open letter in De Tijd.

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To meet our climate goals and support the sustainable transition of Flemish industry, additional public investment is desperately needed.

Sectors such as chemicals, steel and refining form the economic backbone of our modern society. With those sectors, Flanders has a strong basic industry, although it is very energy-intensive and dependent on fossil raw materials. Although those three sectors have already managed to reduce their emissions significantly in recent decades, today they still represent the lion's share of industrial CO2 emissions in Flanders, some 27 Mton per year.

To reduce those emissions and meet climate targets, the industry is working hard on sustainable alternatives to the fossil raw materials it uses today. These include, for instance, bio-based raw materials, or the use of CO, CO2 and hydrogen as feedstock. The industry is also focusing on material recycling, process electrification, renewable energy sources and residual heat.

'No regret' investments

To give these sustainable alternatives a full chance, accompanying investments from the government are badly needed. We propose six so-called 'no regret' investments.

We propose six government investments in infrastructure that we need to build in the coming years anyway.
These are government investments in infrastructure that we need to build in the coming years anyway and that do not give rise to lock-ins: the proposed investments stand on their own and do not require further investments that are unexpected and/or irreversible, such as, for example, building railway lines to locations where nobody needs a train. In short, these are investments we as a society will not regret.

1. Invest in infrastructure to capture, purify and liquefy CO2

Flemish industry is concentrated in a relatively small area. CO2 is released there at a limited number of point sources. This allows maximum commitment to carbon circularity, whereby carbon is fixed in materials as much and as long as possible. Specifically, capture CO2 at source and reuse it as a raw material.

2. Invest in infrastructure to transport captured CO2

A pipeline can transport CO2 to and from the industrial and chemical clusters of Ghent, Antwerp and the Albert Canal.
Carbon circularity requires synergy between companies, and therefore an adequate logistics chain that transports captured CO2 to the site of use. Initially, a CO2 pipeline connecting the industrial and chemical clusters of Ghent, Antwerp and the Albert Canal is needed. Furthermore, cooperation in the Antwerp-Rotterdam-Rhine-Ruhr region, the industrial heart of Europe, could also be explored.

3. Invest in an electricity grid that optimally connects Flanders with the rest of Europe

With the electrification of industrial processes, the demand for electricity will increase strongly in the coming years. Flanders is too small to generate all that electricity in a renewable way. Imports will be necessary. This can be done directly, for instance via high-voltage lines bringing offshore wind energy from other north-western European countries to Flanders.

Import is also possible indirectly, with renewable electricity from abroad first being converted into carriers such as hydrogen or ammonia, for example. Due to the expected size and fluctuation of renewable electricity demand, both direct and indirect imports will be needed.

4. Invest in a Flemish backbone for hydrogen

Industry already uses hydrogen as a feedstock today. Carbon circularity could make the demand for sustainable hydrogen increase tenfold in the coming years. In the short term, industry can recover hydrogen that occurs as a by-product from existing processes. Local production of green hydrogen will also increase. Still, imports will remain necessary to meet growing demand.

Flanders needs to improve the physical link between supply, production and use via storage facilities and hydrogen pipelines between its industrial clusters and port areas (Zeebrugge, Ghent, Antwerp and Albert Canal).

5. Invest in CCU innovations

CCU (carbon capture & utilisation) technologies allow, among other things, CO2 to be converted into valuable products using green power. These innovative technologies already exist, but still require a lot of research to scale them up successfully and profitably. In Flanders, we are among the world leaders in that field. We can become major players in exporting CCU technology worldwide. However, this requires sufficient attention to upscaling and testing systemic solutions. This can be done, for instance, by setting up regulatory-free zones where smart links can be made with sectors such as agriculture, transport and construction.

6. Establish a 'task force/observatory'.

To identify international opportunities, such as large renewable energy projects or CO2 conversion projects, the government should set up a task force. This can proactively link to those projects with a view to future supply. This will enable a higher degree of demand management, and hence flexibility, in the industry.

For the industry, those six government investments are a necessary condition to further reduce its CO2 emissions by 2030 and meet its climate-neutral targets by 2050. Moreover, they are a catalyst for new investments by the industry itself. The two cannot be separated. It is an and-and story, with government and industry joining hands.

By investing as a government in what is necessary now, Flemish industry can take structural steps in the climate transition in the short term. We therefore urge the government to maximise the proposed investments, which moreover fit into a green relaunch. In this way, together with Flemish industry, we can ensure a sustainable and competitive future.

Authors: Bert Bouwman (VITO), Johan Martens (KU Leuven), Korneel Rabaey (UGent), Kevin Van Geem (UGent), Lieve Helsen (KU Leuven - EnergyVille) and Tomas Wyns (VUB - IES).

Source: De Tijd