Let’s seize the chance to trigger the much-needed virtuous cycle of decarbonization
This article is inspired from a speech given by Mr Philippe Bastien, Chairman of Glass for Europe, at the Palace of Nations in Geneve, for the Opening Ceremony of the International Year of Glass.
Europe is now at a critical junction in shaping its energy transition, only accelerated due to the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. This ongoing transition will demand hard-tosubstitute, transition-enabling EU flat glass in ever larger quantities up to 2050 and beyond. Europe’s flat glass industry needs to face today’s energy crisis, and, with adequate support, it will come out stronger to support Europe’s transition towards climate-neutrality.
Thirty years since the adoption of the first global agreement on tackling climate change, Europe’s transition to a sustainable, low-carbon, circular economy is now a reality.
A reality driven by the global Paris agreement and guided by ambitious policies like the European Union’s ‘fit for 55 package’ and ‘Green Deal’, aligned at the global level with the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals. Beyond public policies, sustainability strategies are now central to every successful sector, and a central concern for many investors.
This is why, the European flat glass industry is fully engaged in this transition to a sustainable, low-carbon, circular economy.
On track with sustainability
Today, flat glass is on track when it comes to sustainability. The industry’s efforts in R&D have borne fruit. The sector is already contributing strongly today to a more sustainable, low carbon future, by providing the endlessly recyclable materials essential to renovate buildings, support the green mobility transition and help increase the share of renewable solar energy.
These innovation efforts mean the solutions to meet tomorrow’s needs too are already available.
An irreplaceable material in buildings
Glazed facades and windows provide daylight inside buildings, offer views to the outside, ensure comfort and well-being to occupants, and create healthy indoor environments. No other material provides such transparency, energy-efficiency, safety, and durability at an affordable cost in the construction industry.
The industry already has solutions today to help achieve tomorrow’s energy-positive buildings:
- High performance coated glass – significantly improving the insultation of buildings and avoiding unwanted heat-build. In Europe alone, its roll-out can help save nearly 100 million tonnes of CO2 from buildings.
- Switchable glazing – that can adapt to solar heat and light depending on the weather and occupants comfort needs
- Building Integrated PhotoVoltaics (BIPVs) – glazing that covers opaque parts of a building with integrated photovoltaic electricity generation, with its safety glass, different colours and finishes making it suitable for all building types
- Transparent Photovoltaic glazing – advances in double and triple glazing mean that integrated photovoltaic electricity generation can also be integrated into building facades and windows.
The industry is also continuing to invest to develop more durable and lighter glazing, as well as glazing enabling 5G transmission.
A dynamic supplier to the automotive industry
Flat glass is transformed into windshields, side windows, sunroofs, backlights and mirrors for the global automotive sector. Thinner safety glass reduces weight, and solar control glass minimises the need for air-conditioning. Both of these features help to reduce conventional vehicle emissions, as well as increasing range for electric vehicles.
In the future, glass roofs with integrated photovoltaic cells could become mainstream. That means, for example, electric vehicles with their own photovoltaic electricity generation.
All these solutions, including the digital glass inside vehicles, are also adapted to other means of transport, buses, trains, trams, and more, to contribute to safe autonomous and low-carbon transport.
Key to renewable solar energy
It’s the low-iron glass and the self-cleaning coating technologies that allow maximum transparency in solar panels, helping maximise electricity generation. Thanks to glass, these solar panels are also made more durable. Mirrors redirecting light in solar concentrated power plants are also solutions coming from the flat glass sector’s portfolio. The flat glass industry contributes directly to renewable energy generation.
Huge strides in reducing C02 emissions
As we all know, any glass production is an energy-intensive process with resulting C02 emissions. Throughout the EU flat glass industry, engineers have worked very hard to reduce C02 emissions incurred during production. Since 1990, the industry has managed to reduce emissions by an impressive 43% per tonne of flat glass.
This outcome was achieved thanks to continuous improvements in EU manufacturing installations via three complimentary routes. First, via industrial innovation. Over the last 30 years, improvements to furnace design, construction, and operations were realised by using advanced furnace engineering, innovative materials and digitialisation.
Second, by evolving in the energy mix. Again, over the last 30 years, the industry has ceased to use fuel oil to fire plants, together with employing electric boosting and raw material pre-heating.
Third, through improving circularity. In the last decade, the industry has been able to use almost a third more recycled glass (cullet) as a raw material, by introducing collection schemes with transformers and recyclers.
Thanks to these efforts, flat glass products, and in particular those used as glazing in buildings, deliver far more CO2 savings during their lifetime than are emitted in their production.
Yes, that’s right, the flat glass industry is already a producer of CO2 avoiding products.
Glass is clearly on track today. And tomorrow?
Let’s fast-forward to about 30 years from now, to 2050. If the policies like the European Union’s ‘fit for 55 package’ and ‘Green Deal’ come to fruition, Europe could be a sustainable, climate-neutral economy.
Where does the flat glass industry fit into this future scenario?
Clearly, it has a key part to play. It’s no coincidence that the leading scientific journal, Nature, recently described glass as “the hidden gem in a carbon-neutral future”. Not to mention the fact that 2022 is the United Nations International Year of Glass.
The key question is not ‘is the flat glass sector a key part of achieving a sustainable future’. The answer to that is a clear yes. The real question is: Can the flat glass sector provide all these indispensable products while cutting its own manufacturing emissions?
Producing flat glass with minimal embedded CO2
As mentioned earlier, the industry has invested heavily in reducing C02 emissions in its energy-intensive production process. The results are there to prove it.
But Europe’s flat glass industry is not hiding away from its responsibility. It needs to go further and faster in slashing CO2 emissions as much as possible from flat glass manufacturing.
It’s ‘all hands-on deck’ in Europe.
At the company level, many Glass for Europe member companies have taken very ambitious commitments. For example, AGC has committed to an additional 30% cut in CO2 emissions by 2030, and climate neutrality by 2050.
It’s ‘all hands-on deck’ in Europe in the research labs and manufacturing sites too. This is where new production techniques are being researched and tested. For example, UK flat glass manufacturers, including Guardian Glass, are active parties to Glass Futures, a new glass research and testing centre with decarbonisation as one of its core areas of focus.
It is no secret that flat glass manufacturers are looking into several routes, from greater recycling to new energy sources for firing furnaces to carbon capture and storage or use (CCSU).
Greater recycling is an important route to cut emissions in flat glass manufacturing. For example, Saint-Gobain has publicly committed to increasing cullet in the batch up to 40% and is investing in glass treatment facilities to help achieve this.
In parallel, there are research and trials to use new energy sources for flat glass furnaces:
- for example, trials on hydrogen to power furnaces by NSG in the UK.
- Work is also in progress on powering flat glass furnaces with a large share of electricity, biogas and other energy sources.
- Hotoxy combustion or hybrid furnace solutions are also researched.
Investigations into the capture and reuse of remaining CO2 emissions via CCSU are also happening.
It’s ‘all hands-on deck’ in Europe across the value-chain as well. The flat glass industry is looking into digitalisation and Industry 4.0 tools. These offer potential to optimise transport of flat glass sheets, minimise losses in processing sites and cut energy and CO2 emissions wherever possible.
And, last but by no means least, it’s ‘all hands-on deck’ in Glass for Europe, the sector’s European trade association. An ambitious 2050 vision was set by all members and partners, and the association’s activities are now fully geared towards realising this vision.
Rising to the challenge while maintaining global competitiveness
Technically, the challenge is great. But where it becomes most acute is in deciding how the industry can develop and roll out these completely novel manufacturing techniques while still maintaining its competitiveness in a global economy.
Currently, despite facing higher regulatory and energy costs than its global competitors, the EU flat glass industry still manages to provide 85% percent of the EU demand for building glass. However, Europe’s demand for flat glass is expected to exponentially increase as Europe retrofits its buildings to decarbonise its economy.
Meeting Europe’s future need for building glass will need several billion Euros in industrial investments at the cost of today’s state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies.
Of course, investment costs would need to flow at even higher levels in reality, considering that novel low-carbon manufacturing techniques will entail higher costs and risks, while old assets will also have to be depreciated.
The flat glass sector, like any sector that competes in a global economy, needs the right support to stay competitive so it can help in delivering a sustainable, decarbonised future.
We need to unlock the virtuous decarbonisation cycle
The flat glass sector, as a decarbonization-enabling industry in Europe, has developed a rapidly actionable, virtuous decarbonisation cycle.
It’s imperative this cycle is triggered by concentrating emission reduction efforts on those sectors where solutions already exist for a massive decarbonisation, like buildings, transport and energy. Then, as new business opportunities are generated, the industry will need space to grow to respond to product demand so long as the manufacturing process is not yet largely decarbonised.
This approach will generate the most rapid C02 emission reductions, higher economic activity, and further unlocking of investments in the research, pilot-testing and ultimately roll-out of novel clean manufacturing technologies.
The flat glass industry’s virtuous decarbonisation cycle has 5 main elements: Mainstreaming carbon-avoiding products, nurturing industrial competitiveness, attracting industrial investment, developing sustainable infrastructures, and rewarding innovations in clean technologies and products.
Mainstreaming carbon-avoiding products
A starting point for a virtuous decarbonisation cycle is making carbon-avoiding products mainstream.
Net carbon-avoiding flat glass products are already available.
Market forces alone do not ensure their uptake at a scale in line with the EU’s climate policy objectives. This is especially true in terms of building renovation. Markets are powerful tools in seeking climate impacts, but they need to be shaped to deliver on climate neutrality.
Nurturing industrial competitiveness
Transitioning to a carbon neutral economy can be a ‘growth engine’ for enabling sectors like flat glass. Nurturing industrial competitiveness means growth, jobs, investments and innovations can flow across the entire value-chain.
A viable path to reducing CO2 emissions simply can’t involve meeting massively growing internal demand by importing glazing products with a higher carbon footprint from other regions.
It’s critical that Europe designs adequate competitiveness mitigation tools so hard-to-substitute, transition-enabling products like EU flat glass remain affordable to consumers.
Attracting industrial investment
The combination of increased demand for lowcarbon flat glass production and a competitive manufacturing environment can unleash major investments in the flat glass industry.
It’s essential that industrial and climate policies allow these industrial investments to materialize.
Developing sustainable infrastructures
It is all the more essential that infrastructures and networks essential to low-carbon industries are in place rapidly.
These essential infrastructure needs include:
- Waste management facilities to collect and recycle end-of-life building glass
- biogas in sufficient quality and quantity for the sector to embrace this alternative source
- a guaranteed supply of carbon-free electricity, independently of peak consumption time
- Low-carbon hydrogen generation and networks
- carbon capture transport networks and storage facilities
Timing here is key, because all the technological routes to decarbonisation available today require infrastructure in place before investments can be made.
Rewarding innovations in clean technologies and products
Stimulating and rewarding innovation is the bread and butter of a virtuous decarbonisation cycle.
The virtuous cycle of decarbonisation will provide industrial actors the means and confidence to invest even more into R&D for net zero carbon solutions.
So, now let’s move towards conclusions.
European authorities have made it very clear where they expect Europe, its society and its industry to be in 2050. The pathway to get there also start becoming clearer. Transitioning to this more sustainable, carbon-neutral future means deep reductions in energy demand for key sectors such as building and transport, and that the remaining energy consumed is carbon neutral.
The EU flat glass industry, and its wider sector, is an important enabler in this radical transformation. A radical transformation that can only be successfully made if the right conditions are in place to still remain competitive in the global market throughout.
This transformation to a new ecosystem is one that can only be achieved working together, across the full value chain, from suppliers to customers.
The challenges and barriers that must be overcome are not to be under-estimated. Thanks to its impressive track record, one can be confident that the flat glass industry can and will continue delivering on sustainability.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazine’s Spring 2022 Issue – Decarbonising the Glass Industry: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Glass for Europe
Glass for Europe is the trade association for Europe’s flat glass sector. Flat glass is the material that goes into a variety of end products, primarily in windows and facades for buildings, windscreens and windows for automotive and transport as well as solar energy equipment, furniture and appliances. Glass for Europe brings together multinational firms and thousands of SMEs across Europe, to represent the whole building glass value-chain. It is composed of flat glass manufacturers, AGC Glass Europe, Guardian, NSG-Group and Saint-Gobain Glass Industry and works in association with national partners gathering thousands of building glass processors and transformers all over Europe.