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Biomass, captured carbon and plastic waste can help 'defossilize' chemicals, report says

Policy briefing sets out how industry can move away from fossil fuel feedstocks and embrace low carbon and sustainable alternatives.

Chemical plant

Source: Shutterstock/Noomcpk

Biomass, plastic waste and captured carbon dioxide could all play a major role in decarbonizing the global chemicals industry and slashing the carbon footprint of countless everyday products.

That is according to a report out this week from the Royal Society, which sets out how the global chemicals industry could reduce its climate impact by turning to alternative feedstocks that could help slash demand for oil and gas.

It notes the chemicals industry cannot fully decarbonize in the way some other sectors can, as most chemicals contain carbon atoms that are essential to their structure.

But the report argues it is possible to "significantly defossilize" the organic chemical industry by replacing fossil fuel-based feedstocks with alternative carbon sources, including biomass, plastic waste and captured carbon dioxide.

These alternative sources could act as a "greener" source of carbon that could provide the primary chemical building blocks and in the process slash the chemical industry's greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately decarbonize a range of consumer products, the report argues.

The chemicals industry currently accounts for approximately 6 percent of global carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, with the vast majority of chemicals made from oil, fossil gas and coal-based feedstocks and production processes typically powered by fossil fuels.

As such, the sector remains one of the hardest industries to decarbonize, and many oil and gas developers are betting on increased demand from petrochemical companies to offset falling demand from the transport and power sectors in the coming years.

Professor Graham Hutchings said the chemical industry urgently needed to look for alternative feedstocks to ensure it plays a full part in the net zero transition. "We need green carbon," he said. "These alternatives could significantly reduce the industry's greenhouse emissions, but it is vital that research and development in key chemistry fields such as catalysis continues, and in addition to this, vast expansion of renewable energy and green hydrogen will be required."

The report stresses that economies will struggle to meet net zero emissions targets without efforts to decarbonize the chemicals industry.

Demand for embedded carbon in chemicals is forecast to double by 2050, and the sector's emissions will increase if efforts are not taken to curb the current reliance on fossil fuel feedstocks, energy- and fossil fuel-intensive production processes, and high levels of end-of-life incineration.

The Royal Society said cross-sector industry collaboration and government support would be critical navigate the barriers faced by the transition away from fossil-based chemicals, noting there is "uncertainty" over the future availability and price of both fossil fuel and alternative feedstocks, which makes investing in major new chemicals facilities challenging.

But it stressed that in multiple parts of the chemicals sector it is technically feasible to replace fossil fuel feedstocks with sustainable alternatives, highlighting how numerous pilot projects are up and running that show how sustainable biomass, plastic waste, captured carbon, hydrogen and renewables could all play a major role in curbing emissions across the sector.

The briefing explores the potential for sourcing alternative feedstocks, together with the technologies currently available to use those feedstocks, and the opportunities that will be created as research and development advances.

[Learn how companies are implementing climate transition action plans at GreenFin 24 (June 17-19, NYC), the premier event for sustainable finance professionals.]

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