Big polluters take a stand

The fight against climate change has unexpected allies with some of the heaviest-polluting industries joining its ranks. Why have they chosen to take a stand? And what are they doing to help clear the air?

Society needs them. Aluminum, iron and steel, cement and other energy-intensive industries are vital components of the very infrastructure of our cities and towns. But manufacturing these products takes up a lot of energy because high temperatures are needed to heat up and modify materials. The resulting emissions make up a significant share of global stationary greenhouse gases (GHG).

Some of the key players in the field don’t want to be seen as big polluters anymore. “There is a realization that climate change is important. It’s happening, we have to do something now, tomorrow will be too late,” says Volker Hoenig, Managing Director of VDZ, the German cement association, which operates a cement research institute in Germany and is serving the cement industry worldwide. “The advantage is that these emissions are stationary, that is, they are concentrated in one place. The process is therefore fixed and predictable, which makes it easier to monitor and control.”

The development of a new series of industry-specific ISO standards to measure GHG emissions could shake things up. Talking about this project, Hoenig recounts: “It was time for the industry to take responsibility. The momentum came from the manufacturers themselves. Soon, competitors agreed to work on a consensus and make decisions that would impact their future. You had representatives from the iron and steel, cement, aluminum, lime and ferroalloys industries working together. It was a powerful move.”

Concrete solutions
Two chemical waste drums, in front of a factory.Cement manufacturing is one of the most energy-intensive processes worldwide. But this product is irreplaceable, as a binder for concrete structures. “That’s why VDZ was one of the key drivers of the initiative to standardize GHG emissions monitoring and reporting,” says Hoenig.

The association is no stranger to standardization, mainly in relation to product quality. But about 15 years ago, VDZ started taking an interest in GHG monitoring and reporting following the introduction of the European Union Emissions Trading System and the development of the WBCSD1) Cement Sustainability Initiative CO2 and Energy Protocol. The protocol is now used by nearly a thousand cement plants in the world.

“The standardization of GHG monitoring and reporting for energy-intensive industries began as a European initiative, with VDZ involved at an early stage,” Hoenig continues. After this initial effort, the industry turned to ISO in order to widen the reach of this work. “Climate change is a global problem, so we needed a global solution. It made sense to come to ISO,” he says. “International Standards level the playing field worldwide. That’s important for both the economy and sustainability.”

What’s notable about this story is the willingness demonstrated by industry leaders to be part of the solution. “You are accepting a reality,” says Hoenig, “you are a big polluter, but you can do something about it.”

The work is under way and the result will be published as a series of industry-specific standards under the denomination “ISO 19694”. The suite of standards will be made up of a generic document and several industry-specific parts. “Currently, we have dedicated parts for the iron and steel, cement, aluminum, lime and ferroalloys industries, with two additional ones coming up on semi-conductors and displays,” explains Hoenig. “These ISO standards will offer accurate, up-to-date methodologies representing the best current practice. And because they are international, companies around the world will benefit. The ISO process also makes sure that the standards are regularly revised and updated, so that we always have access to the latest information.”

A tonne for a tonne
Although a monitoring and reporting standard may not sound like a revolutionary step, without it we won’t have accurate and comparable emissions data from some of the biggest polluters in the world. “Up until now, these industries have been measuring their data emissions using different methodologies. That means it’s hard to have an accurate vision of how a company rates compared to others,” explains Marcel Koeleman, Chair of ISO subcommittee ISO/TC 146/SC 1 that develops standards on air quality of stationary source emissions.

This is problematic for various reasons. First, manufacturers can have skewed appreciations of their own impact. “You may be doing better or worse than you think, but you won’t know for sure unless everyone uses the same methodology,” says Koeleman. “It’s not an easy thing to do. Some companies will realize they are not as efficient as they thought, but it’s a necessary step if we want to change things.”

Second, for monitoring organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it’s difficult to have an accurate view of the actual impact of these industries without harmonized measurements. In turn, this makes it harder to coordinate an adequate response. A standardized methodology could be used both by countries reporting industry emissions and by companies for internal (or external) benchmarking, which will help enforce and improve monitoring done by organizations like the IPCC. And third, without comparable measurements, it’s going to be very difficult to identify best practice, which is key to taking meaningful action on climate change.

Concreting the floors of a building.“The future standards are therefore one crucial component of a wider response,” says Koeleman. “For the first time, emissions from energy-intensive industries will be comparable, not just from country to country, but also between sectors. It will be possible to benchmark plants worldwide using one common methodology. One tonne of CO2 emitted by an industrial installation from any of these sectors will equal one tonne of CO2 all over the world. That’s not the case today due to differences in reporting methods.”

These standards are therefore a crucial first step for a more controlled and clean industry. For example, projects aimed at reducing GHG emissions could be agreed between countries or even companies, using this new harmonized methodology to monitor results. The standards will also facilitate the development of more accurate environmental management policies. Therefore, the impact of ISO 19694 goes beyond being a technical document, affording a broader societal contribution to our fight against climate change.

“You don’t always get industry willingly stepping up to the challenge. That’s what I have been most impressed with in my role as Chair of the committee. We all knew there were economic consequences, and different interests to take into account, but when I asked people around the table whether they were still in favour of developing these standards, everyone agreed.”

A last question remains. ISO already has a collection of environmental standards, including standards to quantify and monitor GHG emissions. So why are these new standards necessary? For Koeleman, the benefit is straightforward. The contribution that energy-intensive industries make to GHG emissions is significant. Developing targeted guidance that takes their specific industry processes into account can substantially increase adoption and use because they will be more adapted and accurate. “An advantage of creating these standards within ISO is that we don’t only benefit from its standards development experience and international outreach, but we can align with the best practice already developed by the environmental management committee ISO/TC 207. In the end, it’s about learning from each other.”

So far, the development of the ISO 19694 series is well under way. In addition to industry representatives, the committee also has environmental professionals, scientists and researchers working on these standards. “But more experts are welcome,” says Koeleman enthusiastically. “If you are in an energy-intensive industry and want your organization to take leading action and have a say when the rules are being developed, then join us! Simply contact your national ISO member body to participate in our committee. More representation will further strengthen our work.” Koeleman is especially keen to encourage members from emerging economies. “One of the advantages of ISO is that consensus is not something limited to the meeting room; the goal is to achieve consensus at a global scale.”

1) The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a global CEO-led organization of over 200 leading businesses working together to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world.

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