Chemical industry must ‘defossilise’ to reduce carbon emissions that account for 6% of all global emissions

08 May 2024

The chemical industry should defossilise by transitioning to alternative sources of carbon, according to a report by the Royal Society.

Catalysing Change: Defossilising the chemical industry sets out the steps the chemical industry could take to reduce its carbon emissions, which currently account for approximately 6% of global CO2-equivalent emissions.

Chemicals are essential to produce everyday items such as pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, plastics, paints, adhesives, coatings, electronics, cleaning products, clothing and toiletries, but the vast majority are made from fossil feedstocks (the raw material used for processing or manufacturing another product). These include oil, natural gas, and coal. 

The Royal Society report examines potential alternative sources of carbon for making chemicals, including biomass, plastic waste, and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Lead author of the report and chair of the working group, Professor Graham Hutchings FRS, said: “To get to a net-zero world and reduce the impacts of climate change, the chemical industry must look for alternative feedstocks. We need “green carbon”.

“These alternatives could significantly reduce the industry’s greenhouse emissions, but it is vital that research and development in key chemistry fields such as catalysis continues, and in addition to this, vast expansion of renewable energy and green hydrogen will be required.”

Whilst electrification and energy efficiency measures can help to reduce emissions, he points out that the chemical sector cannot fully decarbonise in the way that some sectors can, as most chemicals inherently contain carbon atoms essential to the material’s structure.

The report highlights the need for cross-sector industry collaboration and government support to help navigate the challenges involved in the transition from fossil-based chemicals amid uncertainty over the future availability and price of existing fossil feedstocks as other sectors decarbonise.

Demand for embedded carbon in chemicals is forecast to double by 2050 which will lead to increased emissions if that growing demand continues to be met by fossil feedstocks, fossil-based energy intensive production processes, and high levels of end-of-life product incineration, says the report.