May 24. 2024. 7:07

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Net Zero Optimism: the Modern Way to Decarbonise Europe

A new generation of recruits to industry sees the EU’s ambitious climate agenda as an opportunity to decarbonise energy-intensive sectors and rebuild society. Speaking ahead of the publication of a new report, Sara Versano explains what this means for net zero policy and practices.

The report from Eurima, due to be published on 13 March as a “decarbonisation roadmap for Europe’s mineral wool insulation industry,” sets out the key levers to drive the sector and the EU building stock towards net zero over the decades to 2050.

These “levers” to decarbonisation in time for 2050, Versano and the report say, include energy efficiency and the circular economy. At the same time, as the EU energy mix evolves towards lower emission fuels and cleaner processes, a third lever is emerging. This is the opportunity to make use of alternative fuel sources.

These “three decarbonisation levers” should focus EU attention both on what has already been achieved by industrial policy and action, and what barriers remain in the way of doing more, the Italian-born Eurima official explains from her Brussels office.

“In part, we need to talk about what has been done so far by the construction sector, both in terms of operational carbon and the embodied carbon” says Versano, who joined the Brussels Eurima team from Italy in October 2021.

Learning from Carbon Success Stories

Operational carbon means from the energy consumed during the life of a building, for instance for heating, cooling, hot water and lighting. Embodied carbon refers to everything concerning the demolition and construction or a building, the manufacturing of materials and their disposal at end of life.

To reduce both operational and embodied emissions, “the role Eurima already played in the energy efficiency discussion debate was something that really impressed me early on,” says Versano, now Regulatory Affairs and Communications Manager for the European Insulation Manufacturers Association, representing the interests of all major European mineral wool insulation producers.

“We’ve done a lot in those areas but there is a lot more that can be done,” says Versano, who has a background in international relations and diplomatic science.

Further reducing operational carbon should be the top priority for all of the EU building sector, particularly with respect to existing buildings where significant untapped potential remains, she explains.

At the same time, “Industry must keep working on reducing embodied carbon, and this will of course require a combination of measures,” Versano adds. Alongside boosting resource efficiency through virtuous circularity practices, energy efficiency and fuel switching will play a fundamental role in decarbonising the mineral wool manufacturing process.

Step In Time With a Circular Economy

Despite a Science Masters in sustainable development, Versano says, at first, she “wasn’t fully aware of the great recyclability potential of mineral wool,” before working with experts in the material. “I knew that it was the common solution used for insulation but I underestimated the role that it could play in the circular economy.”

“There is now need for enabling greater circularity in the construction sector on the road to 2050,” she adds.

To address barriers to circularity by reflecting the true costs of different waste streams will require an “enabling regulatory framework” to stimulate the economics of waste recycling, she says. Simply put this means it should not in most cases be cheapest to send recyclable waste to landfill.

The development of circular business models on the road to net zero also depends on local and national waste legislation, as well as the availability of the appropriate recycling infrastructure. “Waste collection remains a major obstacle,” Versano says.

Nonetheless, she remains an optimist. Drawing another lesson from her time so far with Eurima, she says “It’s really interesting how much you can do through innovation and energy efficiency, to improve the performance of the industrial process.”

“For instance, replacement and upgrading of furnaces, improvements in furnace insulation and application of waste heat have helped to reduce our own energy consumption.” At the same time, “technology innovation at plants will keep making fuel switching easier.”

Using biogas or hydrogen instead of natural gas and other innovative technologies, including electric melting and fuel flexible melting, also reminds Versano and colleagues of the role emerging or as yet unknown innovation will play in bringing Europe to net zero, particularly in countries with an abundance of low carbon energy.

Looking On the Bright Side with EU

The upcoming Decarbonisation Roadmap report should show Eurima itself is committed to becoming a net-zero carbon industry by 2050, Versano adds. The industry has already made significant progress on this path, for instance cutting the carbon intensity of mineral wool insulation products by about 40% between 1990 and 2019.

The insulation industry will continue to play its role, but the EU has to create the proper regulatory framework for industry sectors known as the “enabling industries” – those, like insulation, that both take decarbonisation action themselves and enable others to maximise their full decarbonisation potential.

This means the EU must create a regulatory environment that for fast scale up and conducive conditions, for sectors crucial to reaching net zero, as European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said last month.

The mood set by this new, young voice of Eurima as expressed by Versano remains optimistic. “I am, personally, an optimist. And I try to see this climate crisis as an opportunity,” she explains. “I feel that this is a moment of change for humankind in general, and also for industry.”

Looking back on centuries of human endeavour, she says humanity has managed to change earlier unsustainable, unfair modes of production and lifestyle, bringing Europeans to live in a more just and enlightened society than could have been imagined 300 years ago.

“This time, long-term change and a new society it will require even more effort, more technological innovation and much better social awareness from consumers and from politicians. But I do believe we can get it right.”