The chemical sector is the third-largest industrial source of direct CO₂ emissions and the largest consumer of energy. Chemicals are used in almost all other sectors to make products ranging from single-use plastic packaging to wind turbine blades and building materials. The demand for chemicals is set to continue to grow until 2050, underlining the need to make the right investments today to move the sector away from fossil fuels.
The transition of the chemical industry to climate neutrality must address all emissions from the production, use and disposal of its products. For example, incinerating chemical products such as plastics at their end-of life releases the carbon they contain, which accounts for more than half of these products’ total life-cycle emissions.
Three strategies that complement one another are crucial for the transformation of chemical value chains: 1) the direct and flexible use of renewable electricity to decarbonise process heat; 2) a circular economy to close material and carbon loops along the entire lifecycle of chemicals; and 3) replacing fossil with renewable carbon feedstocks to phase out the use of oil in the production of chemicals. At the same time, carbon is an essential ingredient for a large share of chemicals and the transition should mobilise the sector’s potential for using and storing carbon more sustainably.
Biomass is a promising non-fossil feedstock that contains the main building blocks of most chemicals – carbon and hydrogen. However, biomass use needs to be linked to sustainable land use practices and thereby protect biodiversity, carbon uptake from the atmosphere and resilience to extreme weather events.
The chemical industry is well suited to efficiently use a wide range of residual and waste biomass, or biomass that is currently burned for energy. Using biomass as a feedstock for chemicals instead of incinerating it right away delays biogenic CO₂ emissions. Furthermore, combining biomass feedstock use with thorough recycling practices creates a long-term temporary CO₂ storage with an overall positive climate impact. New use options for biomass can mean more financing for sustainable land and forest management. In regions with large renewable energy and biomass potentials, alternative renewable feedstocks for chemicals can be produced from electricity-based hydrogen, bio-sourced (rather than fossil) carbon, and atmospheric CO₂.
Agora Industry develops sectoral pathways and policy proposals that accelerate the transition to climate neutrality of the German, European and global chemical industry.