While welcome, the current political focus on renewable energy is not sufficient to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050. The non-energy use of fossil carbon also needs to be addressed, as the carbon contained in the molecules of chemicals and materials is bound to end up in the atmosphere sooner or later. Only a full phase-out of fossil carbon by 2050 will achieve the planned reduction of overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions towards a carbon-neutral economy says the Renewable Carbon Initiative.
The Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI), a recently launched initiative to support and speed up the transition from fossil carbon to renewable carbon for all organic chemicals and materials, supports the European Green Deal and the new plan of the European Commission (EC) to reduce EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
This level of ambition for the next decade is meant to put the EU on a pathway to reaching climate neutrality by 2050 and is supposed to be the foundation of the EU’s continued global leadership, ahead of the next UN climate conference (COP26).
The energy system will be at the heart of this effort, as the EC has repeatedly explained. The entire focus is on increasing energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy and strengthening carbon dioxide (CO2) standards for road vehicles.
Need to include non-energy use of fossil sources
However, according to the RCI, this will not be enough to reduce the overall GHG emissions and realise a carbon-neutral economy. Chemicals, plastics, and other organic materials are inherently based on carbon, currently derived from fossil carbon sources such as oil, coal, and natural gas.
These carbon-based materials and products play and will continue to play, a crucial role in everyday life – personal protection equipment like clothing, helmets, masks, and goggles being vivid examples.
Therefore, the non-energy use of fossil carbon also needs to be addressed by climate strategies, as the carbon contained in the molecules of chemicals, plastics, and materials are bound to end up in the atmosphere sooner or later.
In its “The Future of Petrochemicals – towards more sustainable plastics and fertilisers” report from 2018, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that as the energy sector becomes increasingly decarbonised, the chemical industry would consume 50 percent of the world’s oil in 2050, as well as a significant share of natural gas.
This fossil carbon use is not addressed explicitly by European policy so it is of the “utmost importance” that policy moves beyond renewable energy and decarbonisation strategies.
Even the EU’s new chemicals strategy, widely regarded as the most stringent regulation on chemicals, is only focused on the health implications and effects of chemicals, and completely ignores fossil-based CO2 emissions and the damages of climate change.
Call for renewable carbon strategy and fossil carbon phase-out
This, the RCI says is a “missed opportunity” for policymakers to address the invisible but vast carbon footprint of chemicals. Only a full phase-out of this additional fossil carbon by 2050 will achieve the EU’s targeted climate neutrality.
Accordingly, the RCI calls for an extension of the European Green Deal to the material sector through a comprehensive renewable carbon strategy. The equivalent to decarbonisation in the energy sector is a transition to renewable carbon in the chemical and plastics industries. Therefore, the renewable carbon strategy complements the decarbonisation strategy.
The ideal target according to RCI is that by 2050, fossil carbon in sectors that inherently cannot be decarbonised will be completely substituted by renewable carbon, which is carbon from alternative sources – all kinds of biomass, direct CO2 utilisation including recycled carbon emissions and recycling, mechanical as well as chemical.
All three alternative carbon sources together can form a circular renewable carbon economy that will be able to reshape the current petrochemical and chemical industry. This would not only drastically reduce GHG emissions but also support six of the 17 United Nations (UN) Sustainability Goals (SDGs).
This fundamental change in the chemical industry is seen as the only way for chemicals, plastics, and other organic materials to become sustainable, climate-friendly, and part of the circular economy – part of the future in a carbon-neutral economy. There is already a growing market demand for products that do without fossil carbon and rely on renewable carbon instead.
RCI members, which include major European chemical and value-chain companies already making greater use of biomass, CO2, and recycled carbon streams, encourage the development of a renewable carbon strategy to extend the European Green Deal to the materials sector and “connect the dots” to other relevant policies like the Circular Economy Action Plan.