New lab tackles net-zero supply chains and industrial policy

Johns Hopkins’ Net-Zero Industrial Policy Lab aims to find solutions that can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from modern supply chains

A cargo ship loaded with shipping containers cuts across the ocean
A cargo ship loaded with shipping containers cuts across the ocean

China’s efforts in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and batteries have reshaped climate politics, leaving countries such as the United States scrambling to catch up. The geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising tensions with China also highlight the importance of this energy transition.

This raises critical questions about how the U.S., Europe, and their Asian allies will establish and rebuild supply chains, allocate scarce resources across key decarbonization sectors, and leverage economic opportunity while forging the political coalitions needed for a sustainable long-term transition.

"We need action-oriented research that integrates detailed knowledge of how supply chains for net-zero industries are forming... That is where the NZIPL lab will come in."

The Net-Zero Industrial Policy Lab (NZIPL), created by the Whiting School of Engineering’s Ralph O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute (ROSEI) and the SNF Agora Institute’s Center for Economy and Society , addresses these challenges by merging technical analysis of net-zero supply chains -those that aim to completely offset or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions- with the study of net-zero industrial policies. Its purpose is to form strategic collaborations with government and industry, offering insights and solutions for navigating this dynamic landscape.

"The deployment of net-zero technologies such as hydrogen, batteries, and fuels will depend as much on their economic benefits, geopolitical importance, and resource availability as on their thermodynamic strengths and weaknesses," said NZIPL Director Bentley Allan , an associate professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Political Science and an associate faculty member with ROSEI. "We need action-oriented research that integrates detailed knowledge of how supply chains for net-zero industries are forming, an understanding of the industrial policy landscape, and a geopolitical perspective on how and why supply chains are forming the way that they are. That is where the NZIPL lab will come in."

Allan considers the opportunity to collaborate with fellow researchers from ROSEI as crucial to achieving the new lab’s objectives and its long-term success.

"Having some of the world’s best engineering expertise is essential; we won’t be able to do this without understanding the technical details in these supply chains and the technologies involved," Allan said.

Though lab experts plan to tackle a variety of issues, they have begun by investigating the practicality of the United States setting up supply chains solely with nations who are its geopolitical allies: a practice known as "friendshoring." Underpinning that approach is the belief that such connections would be more durable and less likely to be disrupted politically, Allan says.

Their conclusion, as described in a study published on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, is that friendshoring is achievable for the United States, and its allies could produce enough minerals to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a target in the Paris Agreement. However, friendshoring would also be a challenge from a facilities and financial cooperation perspective, so even though those targets are possible, they might be unrealistic.

"I think this first study exemplifies the kind of issues that NZIPL will tackle and the technical data-rich analysis we will provide. Given this policy conversation around friendshoring, it’s essential to look at what it would mean to implement it and how feasible it is," said Allan, who reported that this first study was motivated because his many connections in industry and government were curious about the topic. "For this friendshoring study, I went to D.C. for meetings with policymakers to figure out what people wanted information and advice on. I believe academia has a big role to play in supporting policymakers because we can operate independently and without bias. With good information about what the policy problems are, we can go to work on finding solutions, regardless of what the government is hoping the results will be."