Now that the dust is settling post COP26, the role chemicals will play in the climate crisis is increasingly in focus. The industry touches every aspect of our lives, from toothpaste to phones and multivitamins. That makes it a kingpin in the successful transition toward sustainability, according to Dr. Wolfgang Falter, a partner at ChemAdvice.
With 30 years advising companies at global consulting firms under his belt, Falter lays out his thoughts here:
“In all 25 COPs before Glasgow, never has the role of coal, oil and gas as a driver, let alone the main driver, of the climate crisis made the final text. The summit showed very clearly how views differ and how difficult the negotiations are between the stakeholders. But it also showed that the cries for climate neutrality and emission reduction are increasingly being heard and can no longer be ignored.
What does that mean for the chemical sector? The industry is somewhat the link between natural resources and energy generation on the supply side and almost all other direct and indirect customer industries on the demand side. That’s why it has a key role as either preventer or enabler of a transition towards more sustainability.
The Chemical Industry is a large direct and indirect consumer of energy, which is still largely fossil based. If you look at the building blocks, e.g. olefins and aromatics from crackers, chlorine, oxygen, ammonia and methanol, they account for more than half of its greenhouse gas emissions. Leading building block players are thus directly investing into Renewable Energy access to secure their future demand for energy at low carbon dioxide emission levels.
For the producers of materials — especially plastics, rubbers, synthetic fibers and batteries — it becomes increasingly important to close material cycles beyond the use phase. Collecting and recycling materials is gaining importance, in Europe and beyond.
For the downstream producers of consumer chemicals, like pharmaceuticals, adhesives, coatings, and cosmetics, sustainability is about low toxicity for humans, animals and the environment as well as avoiding unwanted side effects, like reduction of biodiversity, excessive use of drinking water or land-use.
It’s all very well having a sustainable footprint and handprint, but it’s not enough. The benefits of improving your sustainability score by the kilogram, litre, 1,000 hours worked and other measurable targets could be drowned out by increased consumption as economies rebound. Demand for some chemicals and materials have grown at double GDP rates. If the specific usage of a chemical or material is overproportionately increasing, then the overall sustainability decreases. When we think about our planet and its capacity to absorb pollution, it pays to think in absolute terms. The boundaries are set.
So depending on the kind of chemicals and position in the value chain, the priorities and topics are different. Some see it as a threat, but we see it more as an opportunity for the Chemical Industry to become the enabler of a more sustainable future.”