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How the pollution from the chemicals industry has slipped under the radar | Environment
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How the pollution from the chemicals industry has slipped under the radar | Environment

Wind turbines on Ince Salt Marshes near to chemical and manufacturing plants on the River Mersey estuary.

IConsumption is one of largest industries in the globe. More than 10%The global production of fossil fuels and the emissions they produce is Estimated at 3.3 gigatonsThere are more greenhouse gas emissions per year than India, yet the chemicals industry has largely been overlooked when it comes climate.

This industry is a vast one that produces a wide variety of products. Many of these products support other industries such as pesticides for farming, acids for mining and lubricants to machinery. It also contains ingredients in cleaning agents and pharmaceuticals.

The industry plays an important role in transitioning to low-carbon economies by providing coatings for solar panel panels, lightweight plastics for vehicles energy consumption, and insulation materials for buildings. However, it is also extremely carbon intensive and predicted that this will increase. Oil companies Have been betting on chemicalsTo remain profitable while the world pledges not to use fossil fuels, According to the International Energy Agency, petrochemicals could be responsible for around 5% of global energy consumption. 60% of oil demandIn the next decade.

The chemicals industry is the largest industrial consumer of oil and natural gas. However, it has the third-largest environmental footprint after steel and cement. This is because only half of the fossil fuels consumed by the industry are used to generate energy. The rest of the fossil fuels are used as feedstock for products like plastics. Emissions are released only when these products reach their end of life, such as when old mattresses or plastic packaging is disposed of.

It is technically possible to reduce the industry’s emissions, but it is difficult. This large, complex industry supports millions of jobs around the world and has significant economic and political power. They have become somewhat of an untouchable industry for many politicians, according Jan-Justus Andrés, who heads industrial policy at the Norwegian environmental non profit Bellona Europa.

But the chemicals industry is finding its way. More scrutinyBoth from countries that must meet ambitious emission reduction targets, and from scientists, researchers, and campaigners urging the industry to reduce its polluting products.

Moving away from dirty energy

One way to reduce emissions is to concentrate on chemical plants that improve efficiency and switch to low-carbon energies.

The majority of industry’s carbon dioxide emissions are directly caused by burning fossil fuels to power chemical transforms, many which take place at high temperatures or pressures. These emissions could be reduced significantly if the industry switches to cleaner fuels like coal.

If there is renewable wind and solar energy, chemical processes that are already driven with electricity, such the production of chlorine to make other materials, such as PVC pipes, or solvents such as chloroform, can be immediately made low carbon. Chemists continue to explore ways to use electricity to power traditional heat-driven chemical reactions, such as the conversion of Ammonia to nitrogenMost commonly used as fertilizer, it requires temperatures of About 500C (932F)..

Wind turbines on Ince Salt Marshes near to chemical and manufacturing plants on the River Mersey estuary.
Wind turbines located on Ince Salt Marshes close to chemical and manufacturing facilities on the River Mersey estuary. Scientists are looking for renewable energy to power some industrial chemical processes.Photograph by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

To meet their efficiency goals, chemical companies count on efficiency improvements. Their climate goalsMartin Scheringer, an environmental chemist from the public research university ETH Zurich, stated that many chemical products cannot be decarbonized as they are made of carbon.

Jonatan Kleimark, a non-profit ChemSec, stated that it is vital to remove fossil fuels from the raw materials that are used to make carbon-based chemicals and other materials. Kleimark compares products made from fossil fuels like paints, clothes, and toys to a carbon debt. The carbon in these products will only be released in the future. Kleimark stated that the longer we wait to make changes, the more debt we will accumulate, which will make it very difficult to address if we don’t start.

Chemicals and materials that are made from carbon already above ground could be used to reduce this debt. Bioplastics, which are made from plant materials, such as corn, sugar, or seaweed, are booming as scientists and companies try to eliminate fossil fuels in plastic production.

Another option is to convert waste products into raw material for the chemical industry. Chemists have used agricultural waste, or even carbon dioxide as feedstocks. Made of Air, a Berlin-based startup that creates plastics from wood waste, is being assisted by Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic business. carbon dioxideEmissions into methanol are used in fuels and to make other chemicals like formaldehyde.

Why not work with someone else first?

However, all of these ideas, especially those that involve a shift in feedstocks, are difficult to implement.

Technologies to convert agricultural or plastic waste into chemicals are not yet proven on a large scale. Using carbon dioxide as a raw material requires a lot of zero-carbon energy.

Manufacturers who make products from plants, rather than fossil fuels, need to ensure they don’t create new problems by deforestation, destroying wildlife habitats, increasing food prices, or increasing the use water or pesticides. Biomass resources tend to be more distributed than chemical plants, which are often located close to fossil fuel resources.

ExxonMobils Baton Rouge refinery in Louisiana. The petrochemical plants inside the complex make materials used in products such as diapers, chewing gum, tires and makeup.
Louisiana ExxonMobil Baton Rouge refinery. Complex contains petrochemical plants that make materials such as diapers and chewing gum, tires, makeup, and tires.Photograph by Barry Lewis/In Pictures/Getty Images

Zhanyun Wang is a senior scientist at ETH Zurich and said that in order to use renewable feedstocks, it is necessary to reestablish existing supply chains. Wang stated that in addition to providing a steady supply of renewable raw material to chemical plants, new supply chains would also need to be competitive against established ones that produce products from fossil fuels for low prices.

The clean power infrastructure needs alone are enormous. The electricity needed to electrify Europe’s chemical sector would be enormous. 4,900 TerawattsAccording to the European Chemical Industry Council’s estimate, there are approximately 1.2 billion kWh of renewable electricity. almost doubleThe total amount of electricity Europe produced in 2019.

If you are a lobbyist working in the chemical industry, these numbers can help you to show your head again and say, “Look, I’m too important and valuable. And second, it’s really, really hard to deal with me.” Andreas said.

Andreas said that currently, that someone else is the cement and steel industries. He said that the internal competition between these three industries to avoid scrutiny was unhelpful because they could benefit by developing an industrial strategy together.

The exhaust gases of steel and cement plants could be used as valuable feedstocks by chemical plants. These three industries require large-scale, renewable electricity or carbon capture facilities. This requires significant investment. Andreas stated that there are ways to reduce the financial risk of building these new facilities, such as if they can serve multiple operations rather than one steel mill or fertilizer factory.

Governments could also help to build the infrastructure or assist companies in accessing renewable feedstocks, according to Rebecca Dell, who directs ClimateWorks Foundation’s Industry Program.

However, there are only 30 years before 2050 so time is limited. According to Dell, a typical company can get a new process up-and-running in seven years if there are no delays. We must move much faster.

Products that simplify

The key to reducing chemical sector emissions is to use and produce fewer chemicals. Scheringer stated that this would result in a direct reduction of CO2 emissions, as well as reduce the environmental and human toxification.

The overuse and misuse of plastics, fertilizers, and other synthetic chemicals has had devastating consequences for ecosystems and human health. Plastic debris can choke waterways and wildlife. Fertilizer-laden runoff from the fields can also cause algal blooms and dead zones along coastal areas.

An algae bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio. The causes of these blooms vary but they are increasingly being linked to fertilizer runoff.
An algae bloom in Lake Erie, Ohio. These blooms can be caused by many factors, but they are becoming more common due to fertilizer runoff. Photograph: Aurora Photos/Alamy

These impacts have caused policymakers as well as consumers to reduce. For instance, many cities now prohibit single-use plastics in certain countries and cities. It’s an attempt at reducing plastic pollution in the environment, more than concerns regarding greenhouse gases. However, we can simultaneously make progress across multiple fronts, stated Dell.

StudiesIt has also been shown that farmers can save money by being more precise in applying fertilizer. This will help to keep greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

It is not easy to cut down on chemicals used in consumer products. Scheringer and Wang, however, have suggested a way for us to start. Researchers have suggested that PFAS be removed from nonstick cookware and other nice-to-have products, in light of the dangers they pose to cancer-causing PFAS. Long-lasting mascaraOr water-repellentSurfer shorts that don’t require the same high performance as forever chemicals.

The researchers recommend that forever chemical be used only in extremely important products like medical devices or protective gear that can save lives. This same approach could be used to identify and eliminate any other chemicals that have been unnecessarily added to products, such as antimicrobials in soaps that can kill germs.

The added benefit of simplifying chemical ingredients in products is that they are easier to disassemble or recycle when they are no more useful. Wang points out carbon black, a chemical used to color food takeout boxes. Wang stated that the pigment is only used to give food a black background. However, the takeout containers are indistinct to any devices that use light to sort plastics at sorting centers. This makes them difficult to recycle.

Wang stated that the chemical industry is producing more chemicals than the market needs.

Kleimark stated that the massive demand for products is another major driver. However, it may be harder to address. We are facing a huge challenge, because we cannot rely only on technology, but must also change the way we do business today.

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