Defossilising the chemical industry

This policy briefing explores the potential to replace fossil feedstocks used in making chemicals with alternative carbon sources.

What are chemicals in?

Chemicals are essential components required to produce pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, plastics, paints, adhesives, coatings, electronics, cleaning products, and toiletries.

Chemicals are made using an initial raw material – known as a feedstock. The vast majority of chemicals are made using fossil feedstocks – oil, natural gas and coal. These feedstocks are then transformed into intermediate chemicals and ultimately downstream consumer products.

How can the chemical industry reduce emissions? 

Due to the size of the industry and its use of fossil fuels and feedstocks, the chemical sector is responsible for approximately 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The chemical industry cannot fully ‘decarbonise’ - as most chemicals inherently contain carbon atoms that are essential to the material’s structure. Decarbonisation measures such electrification and improved energy efficiency would help to reduce the chemical industry’s emissions.

Alongside decarbonisation measures, the chemical industry will also have to ‘defossilise’ – by replacing fossil feedstocks with alternative carbon sources to make chemicals.

What is the difference between decarbonisation and defossilisation?

In the context of the chemical industry, decarbonisation refers to reducing emissions through measures such as electrification and improved efficiency of energy-intensive emissions. The chemical sector cannot fully decarbonise, as it requires carbon as an essential element to produce chemicals. Defossilisation refers to replacing fossil-derived feedstocks with alternative, non-fossil sources of carbon.

What are alternatives to fossil feedstocks?

The chemical industry could defossilise by using biomass, plastic waste and carbon dioxide as alternative carbon sources to make chemicals.

This policy briefing explores the opportunities and challenges associated with each of these alternative carbon sources.

Further reading

Read a blog post from lead author of the report and chair of the working group Professor Graham Hutchings FRS on Why we need to 'defossilise' our chemicals.

Watch talks from a past Scientific Discussion meeting on this topic in December 2023.