The ambition is clear: Europe wants to be climate neutral by 2050. The chemicals, plastics and life sciences sector is taking on this challenge and aims to provide a fundamental contribution to the radical u-turn towards a carbon-smart economy and society. By testing the technologies and innovations and coming up with the concepts that are required to turn these paper-based ambitions into effective realisations.
There is a high degree of willingness. Companies are focusing on innovations and investments in the quest for far-reaching climate solutions and revolutionary transformations in production processes. The sector has not sat around waiting for climate accords or Green Deals before substantially reducing their own emissions. Furthermore, the chemicals and plastics industry makes the materials that we all need in order to ensure our society can take the road towards climate neutrality. The key role is eminently clear, even though the chemicals and life sciences sector still generates a significant share of CO2 emissions.
But what, precisely, is the problem with carbon? Stones and minerals such as limestone, dolomite, gypsum or marble are full of carbon. All living things consist of carbon, along with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and some other elements. In the remaining prehistoric organic materials, compressed centuries ago in the earth’s crust, carbon chains formed the backbone of fossil fuels that enabled living standards to increase within a growing world population.
These fossil fuels now also form the basis of most of the products that we use and the majority of the energy that keeps our society and economy running. When burning these fossilised energy sources, however, CO2 is added to the atmosphere and this has led to levels of CO2 slowly but surely increasing. Although it only makes up 0.03% of the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect has huge consequences for the climate. In order to reverse this trend, we must find alternatives and technologies to continue to supply society with products, materials and energy without these additional emissions.
The question now is how we can use carbon in a smart way so that fossilised CO2 is not emitted into the atmosphere. This can be achieved by exploiting our resources wisely, wherever they are located, and using these as sustainable raw materials. But we must also ensure that we can capture CO2 in order to put it back underground (CCS or Carbon Capture & Storage). This will enable us to reduce concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere quicker, in line with the refined climate goals for 2030.
Covestro and Recticel convert flue gases from the steel sector into plastics and insulation panels
In the next step, we not only capture carbonic acid but reuse the carbon as a raw material (CCU, Carbon Capture & Utilisation). This is not science fiction. The chemicals and life sciences sector is already applying this process and is making innovations in terms of effectively recycling the carbon atom and making the processes more efficient. Captured carbon, for example, can be used for the production of ethanol or methanol, basis molecules for all sorts of valuable applications in the chemical industry, or for the creation of synthetic fuels.
Energy bearers such as electricity or hydrogen cannot be sourced underground; they must be created by wind turbines or solar panels, by splitting water or methane. In all climate scenarios, the demand for hydrogen, as a raw material and energy bearer, is set to significantly increase. Particularly in industrial applications for CO2 valorisation. A diversified range of climate-friendly hydrogen is therefore essential.
In any scenario, fulfilling the increasing energy needs of a climate-neutral society is no mean feat. The entire energy system must be renewed. Not just generation, but also transport, distribution and the technologies for using these energy bearers.
This will affect everyone in society and will require a great deal of time and enormous resources. Everything and everyone must focus on coming up with the energy system of the future, using all new and existing technologies. This will require a financing plan to ensure that affordable energy can be supplied to consumers and industrial users.
Energy4Climate: unique energy and climate project for more energy efficiency and better climate performance
Since 1990, the overall production in the sector has more than tripled, while energy consumption has been reduced by 40%. In other words, energy efficiency has increased considerably. The use of coal and petroleum for energy generation has also been completely phased out over the last three decades and replaced with electricity and natural gas. The chemical sector also generates a great deal of heat and electricity via cogeneration, a much more efficient technology than separated generation.
The products and processes that the chemical industry supplies are of fundamental importance. Synthetic materials are vital for the optimal production of renewable energy and innovations from the sector ensure reduced CO2 emissions and greater energy-efficiency in homes, transport, agriculture and other industrial sectors. This includes insulation materials for energy-efficient housing or lightweight materials so that cars use less fuel.
We have a clear need for the materials from this industry in order to make our economy and society climate-neutral. It is therefore strategically important that we embed production capacity in the most climate-friendly way in our society. It should be noted that emissions of greenhouse gases by the Belgian chemicals and life sciences industry have halved since 1995, primarily due to investments in innovative process technologies. Converted into CO2 emissions, compared to the rise in production volume (a benchmark for efficiency), emissions have fallen by over 80%.
In the sector, there has been a clear separation of the relationship between economic growth and energy consumption and emissions of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, our society is nowhere near climate-neutral and the chemicals and life sciences sector even less so. In order to make this climate ‘leap’, we need a realistic industrial transition programme with targeted innovation and investment support, measures for protecting competitiveness with respect to regions with less ambitious climate goals, and access to sufficient quantities of reliable and affordable low-carbon energy.
The challenges are huge and require the Member States within the European Union, a region that is responsible for less than 10% of global emissions, to take a coherent approach to all policy domains, supported by citizens and companies. Nobody can do this alone. The climate issue requires sector and cross-border solutions. With innovation as the spearhead.
As well as scientific and technological challenges, this unparalleled transition also requires a smarter economic vision whereby the climate approach and the transformation to a climate-neutral energy system takes place in a realistic and feasible manner. So that we can maintain our prosperity efficiently while working sustainably with our planet. In a globalised economy, there is still room for investing in our own country and innovating in climate progress and circular production techniques that can make a worldwide difference.