Where is the European chemicals industry heading?
A discussion with Hariolf Kottmann CEO, Clariant and President, Cefic and Marco Mensink, Cefic’s Director General
The world we live in is in transition. With the adoption of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the signing of the Paris Agreement, the world has taken a new pathway in action on climate change and the environment. The European chemical industry is fully committed to the Paris Agreement, and strongly believes that a thriving industry goes hand in hand with solutions to combat climate change.
What’s the current state of the chemicals industry in Europe?
Hariolf Kottmann: In terms of economic performance, we’re seeing a positive trend, with production levels growing. However, we cannot rest on our laurels in a time of global uncertainty and a necessary shift towards a resource efficient, circular and low-carbon economy. To remain competitive, we must invest and continue to attract investments in cutting edge technology and infrastructure to support and strengthen our industry in Europe
Marco Mensink: Not only from an environmental point of view should Europe take a leading role in the transition to a more sustainable world, but also from an economic perspective as well. It offers unique growth opportunities for our companies in Europe and creates jobs and prosperity at the same time.
What challenges does the European chemicals industry face in meeting this future/a more sustainable future?
Hariolf Kottmann: Without a doubt, sustainability challenges are right at the top of the lists in the priorities of our members. As solution provider for many other sectors downstream, the chemicals industry will be a key player in achieving many of the SDGs. The Paris Agreement confirmed the challenges of managing climate change through carbon reduction and resource efficiency. By integrating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development within its policy framework, the European Union is making its ambitious intentions clear. The European chemical industry stands ready to act.
Marco Mensink: As an industry we have stated our commitment through the Cefic Sustainability Charter. The Charter describes our role as enabling billions of people to achieve quality of life within our planetary boundaries and is a framework for chemicals companies in Europe to rally around to progress towards the vision for a sustainable Europe.
- enabling the transition to a low carbon economy,
- driving resource efficiency across global value chains and in our operations,
- promoting adoption of circular economic principles,
- preventing harm to humans and the environment throughout the entire life cycle.
Hariolf Kottmann: That’s not to say that we have all the answers in place to achieve our intentions. There are still many challenges to overcome. Not least of these, is the fact that chemistry is an energy intensive industry. And whilst we have managed to decouple energy consumption from production (reducing energy intensity by 61% since 1990 whilst production has increased 85%) the need for breakthrough technologies that radically alter production processes is undeniable.
We are seeing some promising technological breakthroughs around alternative feedstock, e.g. Carbon Capture and Use (CCU), and increased use of biomass. But we also need others to scale technologies in production – such as hydrogen fuel cells – as well as in energy consumption.
What does the chemical industry need to overcome challenges?
Marco Mensink: It’s our strong belief that an EU industrial strategy needs to support an ambitious research and innovation agenda, and that more than ever we need collaboration and dialogue between public and private stakeholders. This means both a political determination to promote industrial growth, as well as powerful incentives to develop and implement new technology. Public-private partnerships not only help to share the risk, but also the knowledge; and facilitate rapid deployment and adoption of successful cases.
Hariolf Kottmann: We’re also concentrating our attention on greater cross-sectorial collaboration – focusing on the products we deliver to our end users. This enables us to not only focus on the innovations that society needs, but at the same time apply a customer focused product stewardship approach meaning that we work with our customers across the full value chain to deliver products that are safer, better performing and more sustainable across their lifecycle.
What exciting developments do you expect to happen in the coming years?
Marco Mensink: I believe that chemicals can fuel a resource efficient, low-carbon circular economy. Many of the potential solutions are within reach, from game-changing materials like graphene and carbon fibre, to exciting new technologies making chemicals from waste [link to case study on AkzoNobel chemical from waste]. On top of that, we need an exponential increase in breakthroughs that address the challenges ahead of us. For example a 10x improvement in carbon productivity – the value created per unit of carbon used – would simultaneously deliver a sustainable climate and prosperous world. This is not just a challenge for one sector, we need all partners to work together, and the chemical industry is uniquely positioned to facilitate that collaboration.
Hariolf Kottmann: Chemicals are so present in our daily lives. There is so much potential for them to continue to deliver tangible benefits to society and the vision for the sustainable future we need. We’re committed to bringing these to fruition, whilst leading on overcoming the challenges that we also face.