What the transition to a net zero, circular economy means for chemists and the chemicals industry

If ever there was a time for chemists to show our mettle, this is it.

Projections indicate that if the chemical industry continues on its current trajectory, it will be responsible for 24–38% of the total 2020–50 global carbon budget that would give us a fighting chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Or, to put it another – more frightening – way, business as usual is aligned with a 4°C warming scenario.

The challenges are clearly unprecedented: predominantly fossil-based feedstocks, energy intensive production, inherent process emissions and complex but mostly linear value chains all work against the target low-carbon and more circular future state. Nothing short of a total rewire is required. But the flip side is equally true: the transition to a low-carbon, circular economy presents unparalleled opportunities for chemical innovation. So why do chemicals still sometimes feel like the elephant in the room?

Elephant in the room

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The chemicals industry faces huge challenges in adapting to a more sustainable future, but also enormous opportunity for innovation that needs to be embraced in full

As a chemist, I think we are well placed to rise to sustainability challenges by playing to our strengths. We have a head start when it comes to exploiting green skills and should capitalise on our existing toolkit. Our enquiring minds are primed to seek solutions to challenging problems, and we are steeped in navigating and managing risk. Even more fundamentally, we speak the language of carbon. While most of the population can claim they don’t understand carbon emissions and footprints, we know exactly where the carbon is, long after it has left our labs and production facilities and flowed down the value chain.

Of course, we can cling to the barriers that frustrate our intentions. We know innovation is inherently difficult, especially when dealing with imperfect information. Many companies are finding plans to eliminate virgin fossil materials challenging to deliver, as recycled alternatives can still come with a hefty footprint of their own. But they cannot give up. Regulation can also be a double-edged sword. Few would decry progress towards a global UN Plastics Treaty, but the proposed EU Cross Border Adjustment Mechanism, which aims to level the playing field by taxing imports based on their associated emissions, is already meeting resistance over bureaucracy concerns.

There are increasingly positive signals, though. Regulators continue to internalise sustainability to align with an increasing stakeholder appetite for organisations to ‘walk the walk’ on sustainability performance – whether from end customers, buyers within supply chains or investors. Strengthening reporting and disclosure legislation is going further by linking to real climate transition plans rather than just laudable goals and the recent emergence of international sustainability standards clearly signpost what good looks like in this space.

This ever-strengthening link between organisations, their impact and how their stakeholders view their response will keep net zero and wider sustainability firmly on corporate agendas. Prevailing economic and political headwinds will only improve rather than erode the fundamental business case for sustainability and resilience. As customer-facing businesses look to their supply chains for help in meeting challenges, it will become increasingly uncomfortable for companies trying to hide upstream in the value chain.

Harnessing existing skills and values

So how do we, as chemists, maximise our role in realising positive sustainability outcomes in our organisations? I believe there are common themes we can draw on.

In my experience, few organisations have a firm foundation on which to build their response, and this keeps sustainability issues on the sidelines until someone comes asking. A pragmatic and beneficial approach is to map existing business or operating models against sustainability challenges, to properly understand what sustainability means in terms of risks, opportunities, impacts and dependencies and so frame this against other priorities. Introducing an internal carbon price can also be especially illuminating, helping to support business cases for targeted and prioritised interventions.

Beyond internal action we will also need wider engagements and collaborations if we are to fully match ambition with progress, especially those that bring us closer to end users and translate our chemistry into real world problem-solving. It is unlikely that any one business will solve its challenges wholly on its own and common solutions harbour advantages of lowering risk and increasing implementation efficiencies.

Most fundamentally though, I often find that organisations are failing to fully capitalise on the values and mindsets that already reside in their people, stifling productivity and what could be. When it comes to sustainability, most of us are already on the page. As individuals then, we need to champion our values and harness our skills. And as organisations, we need to create and live cultures where everyone contributes positively to the sustainability agenda so we can all play a fuller role in creating the future we need.

Roger Wareing is a former chemist turned business sustainability consultant