21 June 2023
From Feedstocks to Feedback Loops: Linking Chemicals and Climate Change
Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash
story highlights

Given the rates of environmental decline, the interactions between climate change and chemical pollution are especially pernicious.

The chemical sector is part of the climate problem because of its own GHG emissions and the global warming potential of some of the chemicals it produces.

Yet, through green chemistry, it could be part of the solution.

We are in the midst of a triple planetary crisis. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution endanger the environment and all Earth’s inhabitants – including us. Five of the nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, creating an environment beyond the safe operating space for humanity. Each of the problems, from rising rates of extinction to carbon emissions and plastic pollution, is drastic and frightening on its own. They also interact.

Given the rates of environmental decline, the interactions between climate change and chemical pollution are especially pernicious. The chemical sector is part of the climate problem because of its own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the global warming potential (GWP) of some of the chemicals it produces. Yet, through green chemistry, it could be part of the solution. The need for such solutions is urgent. A warmer world, with less predictable weather patterns and more intense storms, alters how chemicals behave in the environment and how we are exposed to them.

There are dangerous feedback loops. Climate change can lead to shifts in chemical production and use, which, in turn, could fuel further climate change. Some of these links are relatively direct. A warmer world increases the demand for air conditioning. This requires chemical refrigerants. More demand boosts production and, consequently, emissions from the sector. Other feedback loops could be less obvious. There will be more droughts and flooding, which could increase pest and disease outbreaks. This could lead to further use of pesticides and fertilizers. Again, there is an increase in demand and emissions, which adds to the climate crisis.

There is growing evidence of the many varied interconnections between climate change and chemical production and use. Yet, governance of these issues is largely working in silos. Climate change actors deal with reducing emissions and adapting to a warmer world but largely ignore chemicals. Chemicals actors are slowly drawing links to climate change (with the exception of the ozone regime that holds global warming as a central issue). This Policy Brief considers the interactions between climate change and chemicals in more detail, maps the governance connections – or lack thereof, and considers options for the future.

Chemicals are a climate problem

The chemicals sector both produces GHGs on its own and contributes significantly to the global demand for fossil fuels. The chemical sector is the third largest industrial emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the chemicals sector was responsible for 14% of industrial GHG emissions in 2019 (see Figure 1). It is also the single biggest industrial user of fossil fuels for both energy and feedstock purposes. Natural gas, followed by coal, are widely used energy feedstocks.

Global GHG emission trends by industry subsectors

Figure 1. Global GHG emission trends by industry subsectors

Source: IPCC Working Group III Summary for Policymakers

During chemicals manufacture, GHG emissions come from fossil fuel combustion, electricity use, and fossil fuels used as chemical feedstocks. GHG emissions are also by-products of chemical reactions. About quarter of emissions are industrial process emissions, and the rest are from fuel combustion. The highest share of emissions is from ammonia production, followed by high-value chemicals (e.g., ethylene, propylene, benzene, toluene, and mixed xylenes) and methanol. A recent study found that the production of “forever chemicals” (formally per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS) is associated with substantial hydrochlorofluorocarbons (specifically, HCFC-22) emissions. HCFCs are potent GHGs, far more damaging to the climate than CO2. It is also used as an intermediary in PFAS production.

In addition, some chemicals themselves contribute directly to climate change. Chemicals with high GWP trap heat in the atmosphere. Several fluorinated chemicals, often used as refrigerants, have a high GWP value. These include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), HCFCs, and perfluorocarbons (PFCs), each of which are magnitudes more potent than CO2. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol sought to address HFCs, in part because they were increasingly being used to replace CFCs after they were banned under the Protocol.

Climate scientists are closely considering the chemical sector’s emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that the chemicals sector is not on track to meet net zero. The IPCC reports that, on average, the sector’s emissions grew by over 1.5% per year between 2010 and 2019. According to the IEA, the carbon intensity of the sector, that is, how much CO2 is produced per tonne of primary chemicals, has remained stable.

There are key regional differences. Chemicals production has shifted to the Global South, bringing with it the emissions from the sector. In 2020, China was responsible for roughly 57% of global GHG emissions associated with petrochemicals, while the US and Europe accounted for 6% and 5%, respectively. In part, this variation is down to where the industry gets its energy. The more coal, for example, in the energy mix, the higher the emissions from the sector.

The chemicals sector has yet to find or implement efficiencies to decrease its CO2 intensity. As a result, increased production necessarily leads to increased emissions. Reducing carbon intensity can be a step toward addressing the sector’s emissions while still meeting demand. While efficiency can be a key solution, the issue of raw materials and feedstocks remains. Overall, we still have an complete picture. Emissions reporting is improving, but as a report from Lund University makes clear, disclosure is partial and inconsistent, and complicated by long, complex value changes.

Potential solutions

Addressing climate change emissions may become a pressing concern for the industry. Pressure from governments, coupled with changes to the global energy system, may require companies to act to reduce emissions and to find alternatives to using fossil fuels as inputs. Climate action could build long-term value. There are also economic opportunities for the industry to help itself, and others, reduce GHGs, including in the transportation and aviation sectors.

There are analyses of potential solutions that the industry can implement to reduce GHG emissions in the sector, many of which point to the opportunities for reaching net zero. Net zero, as a concept, recognizes that some sectors may be difficult to fully decarbonize. Therefore, a mix of emissions reductions and offsetting or carbon capture and storage (CCS) could realize a “balance” between emissions and removals. Some research has advocated for the use of carbon capture technologies to reduce emissions in the sector, and for using carbon from sequestered CO2, called carbon capture and utilization. Biomass could potentially replace fossil fuels as raw materials, although there would be implications for land use.

There are other solutions at hand, drawing from ideas in the chemicals community, particularly green chemistry and circular economy. Green chemistry minimizes the need for hazardous substances when designing products and production processes. It mimics nature, by using renewable and biodegradable materials. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has outlined ten objectives for green chemistry, including using chemistry to minimize hazards, avoiding regrettable substitutions, and green sourcing feedstocks and production processes.

Similarly, circular economy thinking can help with identifying potential impacts from a product’s design to its end of life. Tools such as lifecycle assessment can include GHGs. For example, making products more reusable and repairable will decrease demand for new products and chemicals, which will reduce emissions from the sector. Renewable inputs could be a cost effective and sustainable solution for the industry.

Climate change is a chemicals problem

The impacts of climate change complicate chemicals management in several ways. There is a growing need for the sector and governments to think about climate adaptation (that is, building resilience to a warmer, less predictable world) in the context of chemicals management. It can increase the toxicity of some chemicals and amplify their releases into the environment. At the same time, climate change raises risks for chemicals and waste management facilities to keep hazardous products away from the surrounding environment and populations.

Already, the world is more than 1.1°C warmer than the pre-industrial era. Higher temperatures can lead to an increase in the toxicity of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), air pollutants, and pesticides, including organophosphate insecticides such as chlorpyrifos. Increased temperature can influence the fate and behavior of POPs, affecting how humans are exposed to these chemicals. Ecosystems are at risk as well. Ocean acidification may influence the behavior of metals in marine sediments, as well as their toxicity, impacting ecosystems and their inhabitants on the ocean floor. For animals already at the edge of their ability to survive in a warmer world, increased chemical toxicity could be particularly harmful.

Other effects of climate change are likely to amplify the releases of chemicals, either from the environment directly, or by damaging infrastructure. Melting ice is particularly worrying. Melting glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau release PFAS. Mercury may emerge from thawing permafrost. Melting Arctic ice could lead to four-fold increase in banned POPs in Arctic waters.

Flooding, “super-storms,” and other climate-fueled events can challenge chemicals management. These events can exacerbate the risks by increasing the likelihood of spills, contamination, infrastructure damage, and altered environmental conditions. For example, the Krasny Bor hazardous waste site in Russia has previously flooded. Assessment projects have tried to identify the risks of releases into the surrounding environment. The World Health Organization (WHO) has prepared guidance for public health authorities on the types of risks associated with chemicals after cyclones and flooding. For both, it highlights an increased risk of burns, poisoning, respiratory tract injuries, and injuries to workers.

Other tools of chemical management may need to be updated. Risk assessments often involve models or data on human and animal exposure. Altering the toxicity, behavior, and movement of chemicals could require updates to models and methodologies. It may also mean governments and researchers may have to enlarge their sample populations.

There will be regional differences in how climate change affects chemicals management and human exposure. The Arctic is of particular concern. It is highly vulnerable to both climate change and chemical pollution. Melting ice, coupled with changes to precipitation, water salinity, and sea ice quality, could unlock POPs and other chemicals deposited in the region, leading to unintentional releases and movement. These climate factors are associated with POPs concentrations in multiple Arctic biota. Other regions will face their own challenges. Small island States are already experiencing the effects of sea level rise, which could increase chemical releases from waste disposal sites. Solutions to chemical management in the context of a warmer, more turbulent world will have to be tailored to regional, and perhaps local, differences.

The potential impacts of climate change on the sector are wide ranging, from operations to risk assessments. There are equally a wide range of measures that could be implemented, as outlined in a 2015 UK Climate Change Adaptation Guidance.

Governance silos

Despite all the interconnections, climate governance rarely touches on chemicals specifically, and vice versa. The Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol on ozone depleting chemicals are an exception. These treaties, working together, regulate chemicals that damage the ozone layer, and also consider the GWP of chemicals. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol regulates HFCs, potent GHGs.

The Paris Agreement on climate change requires countries to submit or update nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years. The content of these pledges is almost entirely up to countries. Developed countries are required to have an economy-wide numerical target. Developing countries are encouraged to do so. In the current set of NDCs, 115 countries’ pledges include a target for industry, of which chemicals is a part. Waste is its own sector in climate planning and reporting, widely included in NDCs.

There is a role in global climate governance for the private sector and other actors to also make pledges under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Global Climate Action portal encourages and tracks the pledges of a wide range of non-state actors. The portal allows for searching for chemicals companies specifically. In total, 289 chemicals companies logged an action, 263 of which made a commitment. So far, 207 of these companies have reported on their progress toward that commitment. Many of these seem to be small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Of the top 20 chemical companies in the world, 11 registered on the portal, nine have at least one commitment, and five had reported back. Less than 40% of US-based Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS) Top 100 companies have net-zero goals or align with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).

In chemicals governance, there have been a growing number of reports to raise awareness of the interconnections between chemicals and climate change, but little in the way of rule making to draw firmer links. The Stockholm Convention has repeatedly explored the connections between POPs and climate change. In conjunction with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, the Secretariat produced a report as early as 2011. Another report, co-authored with the Minamata Convention Secretariat, was published in 2022. The Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) published a report on POPs and climate change in 2013 It noted that climate change could affect some criteria that the Committee’s considers when assessing chemicals, such as toxicity and long-range environmental transport (LRET).

As yet, climate change has not been incorporated in the Committee’s work. In part, this may be due to its mandate to consider the persistence, toxicity, bioaccumulation, and LRET of a chemical based on existing information and data. Models predicting future values are not considered as part of the Committee’s reviews.

In the current negotiations for the post-2020 strategic approach to chemicals and waste, there is a target related to synergies and linkages with other policies (currently, target E6). At present, the text mentions climate change, biodiversity, and other areas such as health. There is also a target related to implementing policies to encourage production with sustainable and safer alternatives. This could include policies to facilitate the use of cleaner production technologies, or product re-use and recycling, which could indirectly help reduce GHG emissions. Realizing these targets, in whatever final, adopted form they will take, will require further drawing the links between these two governance arenas.

Bridging the gaps

The biodiversity-climate link could be instructive. It took years of work, largely on the part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat, to forge the connections and conduct outreach to the climate community. Recently, there have been decisions in the UNFCCC and CBD that recognize these connections. Most revolve around the idea of nature-based solutions (NbS). The concept has proved useful to articulate nature-climate connections in a way that facilitates actions on both sides.

At present, the chemicals-climate link lacks such a unifying concept. Climate actors may ask, “why should we do more on chemicals, specifically? What’s the value added?” Chemicals actors could ask the same questions. A concept bridging and articulating the solutions could help provide a common frame of reference and action.

Building this bridge may require collaboration. Some Secretariats, namely the UNFCCC and the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions (BRS) Secretariats, are already talking about commonalities. Wider engagement among scientific communities, activists, and states could further improve knowledge of how intertwined the climate and pollution crises are, and the implications for the future.

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This document has been developed within the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project ID: 9771 on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). This project is funded by the GEF, implemented by UNEP, and executed by the SAICM Secretariat. The International Institute for Sustainable Development acknowledges the financial contribution of the GEF to the development of this policy brief.

This Policy Brief is the seventh in a series featuring cross-cutting topics relating to the sound management of chemicals and waste. It was written by Jen Allan, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) Strategic Advisor. The series editor is Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor, Tracking Progress Program, IISD.

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