Light Industry

More efforts needed
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About this report

Light industry describes a range of sectors with lower absolute energy use than heavy industry such as steel and cement. This wide-ranging sector accounts for 17% of all industrial emissions. Key components of light industry include the production of food (14% of light-industry emissions), timber (1%), machinery (8%), vehicles (2%), textiles (3%) and other consumer goods (55%), as well as construction (9%) and mining (8%). Emissions from light industry are generally easier to abate from a technological point of view than heavier industry due to lower temperature requirements.

Conversely, these sectors are spread over many more manufacturing sites and companies than heavy industry, adding to the complexity of deploying clean technologies at scale. Considerable progress has been made in lowering emissions over the past decade, including deployment of low-emission heating technologies, such as industrial heat pumps, and energy efficiency measures. However, these changes are not yet occurring fast enough – accelerated deployment will be needed to put light industry on track with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. 

CO2 emissions

Emissions from light industry rose in the early 2000s due to growth in output, especially in China. Between 2010 and 2020 emissions declined by about 2.3% per year, while total output continued to grow. This was attributable to improvements in energy efficiency, particularly from the adoption of best available technologies in China – as well as producers moving towards electrification. Progress, however, is still not at the rate needed to be in step with the Net Zero Scenario – emission reductions must accelerate to about 3% per year on average to 2030 to get on track. 

CO2 emissions from light industry by region in the Net Zero Scenario, 2000-2030


Energy is used for a wide array of purposes in light industry, and its application varies widely according to the sector in question. Overall, the largest consumer of energy in light industry is process heat for applications such as drying, metal melting and food preparation. Around 90% of the fossil fuels used in light industry are for generating process heat, while electricity is used primarily to power motor-driven systems as well for process heat, cooling and lighting.

Light industry final energy use by source in the Net Zero Scenario, 2000-2030


Fossil fuels made up just under half of the final energy used in light industry in 2020. Their share is on the decline – in 2010 they accounted for about 58% of final energy use. The main contributor to this decline is electricity, which grew as a proportion of total final energy by about 2% per year between 2010 and 2020. The Net Zero Scenario sees electricity’s share increase at a faster rate – about 3% per year – to make up around 45% of energy consumption by 2030, alongside continued growth in bioenergy use, and a very large proportional (but relatively small absolute) increase in the use of emerging near zero technologies like solar thermal, geothermal energy and hydrogen. 

Technology deployment

Unlike in many other industries, most of the technologies needed for net zero emissions in light industry are already on the market. Around half of the heat demand from light industry is currently satisfied by fossil fuels, but because more than 90% of total heat demand is low or medium temperature (below 400°C), there is wide scope for electrification. Heat pumps – which commonly run on electricity – are a good alternative for lowering energy requirements. Units able to provide heat above 100°C are now entering the market, with some reaching up to 165°C. The Net Zero Scenario sees them supplying about 7% of light-industry heat by 2030. Many other forms of electric heating exist, such as electric boilers and induction heaters. Each is more efficient for different applications and temperature ranges. Hydrogen produced from electrolysis could also be used as an indirect form of electric heating, and would not generate emissions if the electricity used in the electrolysis is zero-emission. In the Net Zero Scenario, 40% of the heat required is provided directly or indirectly by electricity by 2030, compared with 16% today.

Additional low-emission heat can be provided using biomass or recovering the waste heat from other nearby industries. Finally, where the geography allows, solar water heaters, concentrating solar thermal systems and geothermal heat are a cost-efficient alternative for lower-temperature process heat. 

On the mechanical energy front, good progress is being made on electric motors, as global production is increasingly reliant on more efficient models. A new EU regulation has mandated that 750 W 4-pole EI2 class motors, which is the current minimum EU standard, must have an efficiency of 79%, while similar-sized EI4 class motors must have an efficiency above 85%. In the Net Zero Scenario, 80% of global motor sales in light industry are EI3 class or above by 2030. Implementing variable-speed drives allows for further efficiency improvements.

Beyond the heating and motor technologies mentioned above, many other technologies can help reduce light industry’s emissions and energy consumption, such as LEDs, process controls and efficient pumps. Energy savings need to be made all across the board. 


In contrast to heavy-industry emissions, most of the technologies required for deep emission reductions in light industry are available on the market, making innovation less critical. That does not mean that it is unimportant, however, as a large number of technologies that have been developed still have relatively low market penetration, especially in near zero-emission heat generation. Investment in technology such as heat pumps and alternative process heat production (e.g. radio frequency heating, electromagnetic heating and infrared heating) – either through direct funding of development or through policies to increase uptake – can help to reduce costs and increase the rate of deployment. 

Supporting infrastructure

Electrification can only succeed in significantly reducing emissions if it comes from near zero-emission sources. Policy makers must therefore ensure that the necessary investment in, planning for and deployment of production capacity and distribution systems for clean electricity and hydrogen takes place. Industrial clusters and infrastructure build-out would also help maximise opportunities for use of waste heat from neighbouring industrial facilities. An important part of this will be implementing stringent economy-wide emission policies that incentivise decarbonisation at every level.

Recommendations for policy makers

As with industry overall, the decarbonisation of light industries will require multiple measures, including:

  • Adopting mandatory CO2 policies covering industry – this might include carbon pricing or regulation of emissions.
  • Managing existing assets and near-term investment in order to create a smooth energy transition – using policy to ensure new investments incorporate near zero-emission technologies wherever possible.
  • Maximising energy productivity by accelerating progress in energy efficiency. Deployment of best available technologies can facilitate this and policy makers can incentivise it.
  • Improving energy and production data collection tracking and classification systems. Industry participation and government co‑ordination are both important here. 

Light industry comprises companies of varied size, from large automakers to small businesses, compared to heavy industry where players typically operate on a large scale. Small companies do not always have the financial resources for dedicated energy managers or to make large up-front capital investment in lower-emission technologies. Giving them access to free or subsidised efficiency audits, technical support, training, technology demonstration, rebates, low-interest loans and other incentives are important initiatives to help smaller companies reduce their carbon footprint. 

Recommendations for the private sector

Although supply chain emissions are not part of light industry’s direct emissions, this is still an area where they have substantial power to abate CO2 emissions. As light industry such as vehicle manufacturers are often major consumers of heavy industrial goods, participation in initiatives for near zero-emission procurement – such as the First Movers Coalition – is a great way to incentivise lower emissions. Additionally, material efficiency measures – such as minimising scrap production during product manufacturing and producing lightweight products – can help reduce upstream emissions. Efforts can also be taken in other areas of supply chain management, such as using low-emission means of transport. Taking these actions sooner rather than later can help forward-looking firms avoid increases in emission prices before they happen. 

Additional resources
  • Eric Masanet, UC Santa Barbara, Reviewer