HomeLow carbon futureHow the UK’s chemical sector could actually become a source of climate solutions

How the UK’s chemical sector could actually become a source of climate solutions

This post is by Verner Viisainen and Liam Hardy, policy analysts at Green Alliance.

Chemicals are ubiquitous in modern society, but many of us have no idea quite how much we rely on them to keep us clean, grow and store our foods, provide clothing and produce plastics, among many other uses.  Equally, the industry that produces them is often forgotten about when it comes to cutting carbon. Policy makers, NGOs and others seem much more conscious of the need to decarbonise other key industrial sectors such as steel and cement production.

The chemical industry has promoted itself as an enabler of climate action, providing vital solutions to challenges such as insulation foams for buildings. This may be true but, given that it is responsible for four per cent of global emissions and 15 per cent of UK industrial emissions, it is critical that more attention is paid to greening chemical production. The UK Chemical Industries Association has committed to achieve 90 per cent emissions reductions by 2050. But the sector is complex due to the large range of companies and chemical processes involved, and so it faces a multitude of challenges in meeting this target.

The recent Planet positive chemicals report, by the company Systemiq, considers the chemical industry’s global carbon emissions challenge. It demonstrates that, by 2050, a radically evolved chemical industry could not only become net zero carbon but could even become a source of negative emissions. Some types of production could eventually absorb more carbon than they emit by using CO2 from the air and renewable energy to produce chemicals, with certain long lived products acting as permanent carbon sinks. While the global perspective of the report means it needs some translation to the UK context, there are four lessons worth noting.

Net zero is an opportunity
First, wider decarbonisation is an opportunity to expand certain sectors of the chemicals industry, particularly ammonia. Besides being used for fertiliser, ammonia produced with zero emissions (eg from green hydrogen) could be used as a low carbon fuel for shipping or for energy storage (though nitrogen leakage is a concern). There is potential for considerable growth and new jobs in these emerging sectors and it is something the UK could capitalise on.

All emissions have to be taken into account
Second, to fully decarbonise the sector, the indirect emissions it is responsible for should be considered. As with many industries, upstream emissions associated with fossil fuel extraction and downstream emissions from product use and end of life are a big part of the chemical sector’s carbon footprint. Addressing only the direct emissions from production processes will not be sufficient.

Relying solely on CCS is risky
Third, relying solely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to cut emissions is risky. The required reductions will not be achieved if this technology does not perform or scale up as expected. There is also the potential to ‘lock-in’ unfavourable technologies if CCS is used. Even performing at its best, CCS alone will not get the sector to net zero in 2050 because it can’t capture 100 per cent of CO2 and because there will continue to be indirect emissions in its upstream supply chain and at the end of products’ lives.

As Systemiq’s report outlines, there are several disruptive technologies that could eventually replace fossil fuel feedstocks in the chemicals supply chain. The right balance of alternatives (including from hydrogen, biomass, waste sources and direct air capture) will be highly dependent on local contexts but using a range of technologies will reduce the overall risks of the transition.

Better resource management assists decarbonisation
Fourth, better managing demand for chemicals and the products made from chemicals and improving recycling will be important to making decarbonisation more achievable, particularly in areas such as plastics. This is something Green Alliance has previously highlighted in our work on resource efficiency. Systemiq’s estimate is that demand could be reduced by 30 per cent.

It is critical to think outside the box when it comes to finding new low emission products to replace the existing high emission chemicals we currently rely on. Plastics, for example, which have been cheap and easy to produce for decades, have grown to dominate the global supply chain. But the cheapest, zero carbon products of the future may look very different.

Whatever pathway the UK’s chemical industry takes to decarbonise, long investment horizons mean efforts must be accelerated this decade. The Climate Change Committee suggests that near zero chemicals production is possible in the UK by around 2042, using technologies like CCS. But CCS isn’t yet operational, and the sector’s emissions are rising. They increased by five per cent between 2019 and 2021. As well as global studies like Systemiq’s, more detailed national plans are essential.

A new project at Green Alliance is exploring the UK sector and how current policy can be improved to accelerate the transition to green chemicals. If you have suggestions or ideas to share on this, please get in touch with either Liam Hardy or Verner Viisainen.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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