Cracking the low carbon code for chemicals

The importance of petrochemicals to healthcare services is being brought home to the public in daily news bulletins about shortages of testing reagents and hand sanitiser during the pandemic.  Plastic film is also much in demand for protective equipment and packaging. Moreover, countries are finding it useful to have local production. But the manufacturing of petrochemicals produces significant carbon dioxide emissions. Steam cracking of gas or liquids from oil is the main process for manufacturing the basic chemical building blocks for solvents, plastics and many other products. However, the process is also the most energy intensive one in the chemical industry and responsible for 25% of its GHG emissions

We will still need a chemicals industry in a low carbon or ‘net zero’ future. Now there is an official European view on how the petrochemicals industry can adapt its processes for the new future. This opinion has come from a group of experts advising the European Commission on the rules needed for sustainable finance. Their recent report “Financing a Sustainable European Economy Taxonomy Report: Technical Annex” lays out the definitions and rules for deciding if industrial projects can be labelled as ‘sustainable’ for investment and government support purposes. It is expected to form the basis of decision making for financing projects as part of the Green Deal. I have recently written about its view on conventional plastics and bioplastics.

Turning to basic chemical production, the experts propose an absolute performance approach to identify the maximum acceptable carbon intensity that products and processes should achieve in order to contribute to climate change mitigation. Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) product benchmarks have been selected as thresholds. The metric is GHG emissions per unit of production (tCO2e/t). The benchmark is set at the average performance of the 10% most efficient facilities in the sector. The performance of new or upgraded installations will be calculated and approved using the current arrangements in place for the EU ETS. 

The experts have set the bar for sustainability very high.  So how can less efficient crackers reach this performance? The report proposes minimising process emissions by co-processing renewable and fossil feedstock, with conditions imposed on the sustainability and traceability of the biomass raw material. This practice is already underway, with the biogenic content attributed to certain products. Presumably other methods such as capturing and storing carbon dioxide from processes will also qualify. A number of companies are working on using non-recyclable waste plastic as a raw material, by breaking it down into its original molecular building blocks using a process called chemical recycling. This process will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the petrochemicals sector and so should also qualify. And then, using renewable energy for some requirements will also contribute to savings.

Each of these measures will have a cost, but at least there is now a proposed performance standard to work towards. It will take a long time to achieve the standard and additional measures to protect against high carbon imports will also be needed. But we must mitigate climate change and produce our own chemicals, so we should not wash our hands of the solutions that will achieve both.

Published: 3 April 20

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