We need to talk about the connection between chemicals and climate
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We need to talk about the connection between chemicals and climate

The climate issue is considered the deal-breaker for human survival, and a problem we must pour all our efforts into solving. So why bother with chemicals? If climate is the big thing, should we really care about minor issues like chemicals?

Yes. Yes, we should.

Even if the connection between these two issues is not obvious, they are actually closely related. One might even say that without better control of the chemicals industry and chemicals, we will not be able to solve the climate crisis.

According to a recent report from EEA (the European Environment Agency), the chemical industry is the production sector using the most energy in the world. Yes, you read that correctly: in the world. And a high energy consumption means large amounts of – you guessed it – CO2 emissions, which in turn fuel climate change.

 

The green wave will fix this, right?

You may already be scratching your head in amazement: “Global leader in energy consumption, and I had no idea!” Then again, the chemical industry is “only” the third largest source of global CO2 emissions, but who can be best in class at everything?

However, energy use and CO2 emissions are known problems, which we know how to mitigate: decarbonization! Renewable energy, more efficient processes and non-fossil dependent transports will solve the problem.

So, this is basically a passing problem, which will be solved when the green wave hits the chemical industry. Right?

“The petrochemical industry is a ‘pillar of growth’, accounting for 70% of the projected oil demand increase until 2026”

Well, one can hope that the industry is already focused on reducing their carbon footprint, but unfortunately, the numbers suggest the opposite. According to another recent report, this one from IEA (the International Energy Agency), the petrochemical industry is a “pillar of growth”, accounting for 70% of the projected oil demand increase until 2026. To meet this demand, the industry is projecting new crackers in all parts of the world.

 

The hidden source of future emissions

So, not only is the chemical industry already using a lot of oil and energy, leading to emissions; they will be responsible for the increased demand as well. Who knew that the chemical industry was – quite literally – burning the midnight oil to such an extent?

“Embedded carbon is the carbon encapsulated in the products we surround ourselves with every day”

But the oil used as fuel, resulting in energy and direct carbon emissions, is only part of the story. The chemical industry also uses fossil materials to make products – including plastics and other things we have decided that we need to make our daily life bearable.

This is where we find the hidden issue, our secret source of future CO2 emissions – the embedded carbon.

Embedded carbon is the carbon encapsulated in the products we surround ourselves with every day, products manufactured from fossil fuels like oil. These products are mostly made of some kind of plastic. And right about here you need to stop thinking about plastic as simply bags from your grocery store, food wrappings and such. Plastics are so much more.

Take your computer keyboard, for example, or more or less every other electronic gadget in your home. They are made of plastic. Look at the interior of your car – plastic. Look at what you are wearing; clothes these days are largely made from synthetic fibers, like polyester. That’s plastic, which in turn is made from oil.

 

The carbon debt keeps growing

As long as the product is in its intended product form, there’s no problem; the carbon remains encapsulated. But as soon as the product reaches its end-of-life stage, there’s a carbon debt that needs to be paid in the form of released carbon. That can either happen when the product is incinerated – which of course releases all the embedded carbon – or put in a landfill, where the carbon will also be released as nature breaks down the product.

The global demand for products made out of oil currently amounts to 450 megatonnes of embedded carbon per year.

That’s 450,000,000 tonnes, equivalent to 8,654 fully loaded Titanics, and – much like the ship – a disaster waiting to happen.

“We are building a colossal debt of future emissions”

So, every year we embed nearly half a gigatonne of carbon into different products. This carbon will, one way or another, end up as CO2 and contribute to the climate crisis. We are building a colossal debt of future emissions. A side note here is that this embedded carbon is not accounted for at all in the latest IPCC report.

 

Recycling and new ways to create our stuff

And it doesn’t end there. The demand for products containing embedded carbon is expected to double, until we reach 1,000 megatonnes of embedded carbon annually by 2050. If we are to reduce the carbon footprint, this overwhelming growth must be met with huge changes for what kind of materials we use when manufacturing products.

According to estimations, about half of the 1,000 megatonnes of this carbon need to come from recycled materials by 2050. That way, we will at least not be adding any new embedded carbon to the mix.

“We need to increase the amount of recycled materials used in production by more than 20 times, compared with today’s levels”

But this means we need to increase the amount of recycled materials used in production by more than 20 times, compared with today’s levels.

That alone is a huge challenge, due to the lack of available collection infrastructure and recycling technologies, as well as the dilemma of hazardous content in the material being recycled.

In addition, the remaining half of the materials needed are proposed to come from renewables like biomass (200 megatonnes) and different carbon capture technologies (250 megatonnes). Both of these areas have problematic issues: Biomass requires land, competing with food production, and carbon capture technologies are not mature and commercially available today, meaning that heavy investments are needed. CO2-technologies also require vast amounts of renewable energy.

 

But above all: Make and buy less stuff

So, if you’ve made it this far, you have probably already figured out the answer: We can’t keep manufacturing things without paying attention to the debt that comes with it.

There is a very strong connection between climate and chemicals. We need to acknowledge this and take measures to mitigate the consequences of that connection. Stronger regulation and stricter control of the chemical industry is key. So is reducing the amount of products we buy.

We have to stop writing emission checks our future climate can’t cash.