How can the global chemical industry get to net zero?

Industrial chemicals, like ammonia, methanol and ethylene, are crucial feedstocks for over a dozen different sectors – from healthcare, agriculture and construction, to packaging, cars, and textiles.

But these chemicals have a carbon footprint. At the moment, the global chemical industry makes up around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But, according to a new report from the University of Tokyo and consultancy company Systemiq, there are ways for the industry to hit net zero emissions well before 2050 – and even the possibility of becoming carbon negative.

“The chemical industry underpins every modern economy, but it must change profoundly across its entire value chain to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement,” says Guido Schmidt-Traub, managing partner of Systemiq.

“Importantly, these changes are eminently feasible using proven technologies outlined in this report. The recommendations for policymakers, the industry and the investment community are practical and actionable.”

The report outlines three different scenarios to 2050: a business-as-usual scenario; the “most economic” way to hit net zero emissions by 2050; and the fastest way.

Read more on temperature changes, global warming and greenhouse gas emissions: Explainer: IPCC Scenarios

“These scenarios are not forecasts but use the best available data to describe what needs to happen to bring about net zero through different approaches,” reads the report.

The lowest-cost net-zero scenario results in 9 more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) in the atmosphere by 2050. While half a trillion dollars more expensive, the fastest-abatement scenario is the only scenario modelled to be carbon negative by 2050. (For context, the world currently emits around 35 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, or equivalent greenhouse gases, each year.)

The business-as-usual scenario is consistent with 4°C of global warming.

There is an enormous range of work that needs to be done to achieve a net-zero switch, according to the report: circular economy approaches need to be aggressively adopted, the industry needs to decouple from fossil fuels and switch to renewable feedstocks, and renewable energy and carbon capture and storage need to be widely deployed.

The transition to net zero would create roughly 29 million jobs around the world.

The report highlights ammonia and methanol particularly, both of which will be in high demand in a net-zero world: ammonia as a method of storing green hydrogen fuel, and methanol as a way to make plastics without fossil fuels.

Methanol can be made with captured carbon dioxide, opening it up as a potential carbon sink industry.

“To avoid the collapse of the complex and interdependent Earth systems on which humanity, including our economic prosperity depends, we need to transform our social and economic systems and our lifestyles,” says Professor Naoko Ishii, executive vice president at the University of Tokyo and director of the university’s Center for Global Commons.

“The chemical industry has an outsized role to play, with its products used across many sectors and is ubiquitous in modern life.

“The opportunity is clear: to bring the system back within the planetary boundaries, including net zero GHG (greenhouse gases) and become a contributor to the global commons (the stable and resilient Earth system that sustains our lives).”

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