Without sulfur in the form of sulfuric acid, industries would struggle to produce the phosphorus fertilisers that raise farm yields or extract the essential metals used in everything from solar panels to electric car batteries.
Yet a problem looms, which has gone largely unnoticed. More than 80% of the global sulfur supply is a waste product, extracted from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas (which typically contain between 1% and 3% sulfur by weight) to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, the gas that causes acid rain.
Eliminating fossil fuels to rein in climate change will slash the annual supply of sulfuric acid just as demand is increasing. The world already uses over 246 million tonnes of sulfuric acid annually. Rapid growth in the green economy and intensive agriculture could see demand rise to over 400 million tonnes by 2040.
According to our latest study, a rapid reduction in fossil fuel use required to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 could create a shortfall of sulfuric acid as large as 320 million tonnes by 2040, or 130% of present day production.