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Article | Feb 06, 2019

Renewable Carbon – key to a sustainable chemical industry

The chemical industry is faced with enormous challenges in meeting the climate goals set by the European Commission and growing sustainability expectations. Firstly, fossil energy must be further reduced. Secondly, product sustainability must be improved, both during the product’s use and at the end of its lifespan. Last but not least, resource efficiency must be improved, raw material consumption decreased, and ecologically harmful loss pathways must be minimised through the advancement of a stringent circular economy.

However, something inextricably linked with the above challenges is oftentimes ignored: The chemical industry can only become a sustainable sector once it bids farewell for good to fossil raw materials such as crude oil, natural gas and coal, and uses nothing but renewable carbon as a raw material in organic chemistry.

The equivalent to decarbonisation in the energy sector is a transition to carbon from renewable sources in the chemical and plastics industries. All of the fossil carbon extracted from the ground will sooner or later be released into the atmosphere, with atmospheric CO2 concentrations going up as a consequence. Only a full phaseout of fossil carbon will help to prevent a further increase in CO2 concentrations.

Three options

There are only three sources of renewable carbon, and all three are essential for a complete transition to renewables. All three should be used by industry in roughly equal measures, which first requires support from political decision-makers and acceptance by the population.

The first option is renewable carbon obtained by recycling existing plastics and other organic chemistry products by means of mechanical and chemical recycling. The second option is renewable carbon gained from all types of biomass. The third is renewable carbon obtained from direct CO2 utilisation of fossil point sources (while they still exist) as well as from permanently biogenous point sources and direct air capture.

There are several political instruments and measures available to promote the chemical industry’s shift to renewable carbon through recycling, biomass and CO2 utilisation. These include taxes levied on fossil fuels used as feedstock, higher costs for CO2 emissions in the ETS framework, the requirement to report and set targets regarding renewable share in production, and minimum renewable quotas for drop-in polymers.

For further details, read the full report: www.bio-based.eu/nova-papers


Text: Michael Carus


Michael Carus is a long-term advocate of what he calls the “Renewable Carbon Economy” and a pioneer of the bio- and CO2 economy.