Chemicals Industry Cuts Emissions

Legislation plus a wide range of voluntary measures is making the chemicals industry increasingly environmentally friendly. Muriel Axford reports.


Emissions reduction has been an important aspect of the chemical industry's continued growth and development. Like all heavy industries it has complied with a growing raft of legislation aimed at cutting emissions from production plants and processes while adopting a range of voluntary measures, which have led to the producers of plastics through to paints going beyond stipulated requirements.

The use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is one example where industries across the board have worked hard to reduce their use and, in turn, emissions. VOCs are materials that evaporate readily from commonly occurring sources such as vehicle exhausts, cleaning agents, furniture polish and fabric softeners. They also include solvents used in coatings, for example, paints, as well as thinners and brush cleaners.

Once sunlight is present VOCs can react with nitrogen oxides to create ground-level ozone and photochemical smog, which in turn can contribute to atmospheric pollution. While the impact of household coatings on atmospheric pollution is considered to be small, manufacturers have cut back the amount of VOC in decorative coatings while developing water-based options.

At the same time there has been cooperation with suppliers, consumers and local authorities on developing strategies for safe use and disposal of materials containing VOC, which has led to a significant decrease in VOC emissions. Indeed, solvent-related VOC emissions have been cut by more than 50% since 1990, according to the European Solvent Industry Group, an organisation that supports the sustainable and responsible use of oxygenated and hydrocarbon solvents.

Meanwhile, efforts to reduce VOC emissions continue. One example is UK-based Defence Support Group (DSG) Bovington, which reported earlier this year that VOC emissions from its operations had dropped by more than 60% during the period 2008–09.

"Solvent-related VOC emissions have been cut by more than 50%."

DSG has a number of sites around the UK that are responsible for the expert maintenance, repair and upgrading of equipment for the UK's armed forces. Cutting VOC emissions is one the company's targets and progress is reviewed quarterly as part of a five-year strategic plan with the UK Government's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Much of the reduction was achieved by switching to water–based coatings.

While overall there has been a significant reduction in many industrial emissions, there is still a political desire to see this fall further.

In June 2009, the European Parliament's Environment Committee gave its backing to a Commission proposal to update and strengthen existing rules to further reduce emissions and pollution from industrial installations. The committee agreed to more stringent emission values for pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, dust and carbon monoxide.

Emissions from the 52,000 industrial installations across the European Union are governed by the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive that requires operators of industrial plants to obtain permits from Member State Authorities. Permits are only granted if environmental protection requirement are met, and sectors covered include chemicals, metals, paper and food processing and oil refineries. A second reading on the directive is due before the end of 2009.

Climate change solutions

Perhaps the most pressing emissions issue for all industries is that of greenhouse gases (GHG) and their impact on global warming. From developments in biofuels through to technologies that allow for capture and storage, the efforts to control CO2 emissions are taking centre stage for politicians and businesses alike. This is an area where innovation remains important, and it is here that the chemical sector contends it can make a significant contribution.

A report produced by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and commissioned by the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) puts the chemical sector at the heart of the solution process for reducing GHG emissions.

The report, 'Innovations for Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions: A New ICCA Report on a Life Cycle Quantification of Carbon Abatement Solutions Enabled by the Chemical Industry', states: "Chemical products have a two-fold effect on greenhouse gas emissions. GHGs are emitted in the manufacturing of chemical products, while at the same time the use of many of these products enables significant reduction in global emissions. [The reduction] can be far in excess of the amount of GHG emitted during their production." The report highlights the impact of installing high-performance insulation on houses, which leads to reduced heating requirements, energy consumption and GHG emissions.

Indeed, the report, published to coincide with the G8 forum on energy and climate change, held in L'Aquila, Italy in July 2009, indicates that greenhouse gas emission savings enabled by the chemical industry are more than double the industry's emissions.

"This study highlights the vital role of the chemical industry as an enabler of solutions to decarbonise the global economy by making products that save energy and create a net emission reduction along the chemical value chain," says ICCA president and CEO of Solvay, Christian Jourquin.

"Greenhouse gas emission savings enabled by the chemical industry are more than double the industry's emissions."

Analyses were carried out on more than 100 chemical product applications. The report found that for every unit of greenhouse gas emitted directly and indirectly by the chemical industry, the sector enabled two to three units of emissions savings via products and technologies provided to other industries and consumers.

ICCA council secretary Alain Perroy believes the emissions saved could increase exponentially. "If industry, policy makers and other stake holders take steps to facilitate emissions reductions and fully utilise chemical products, the study suggests the ratio of emissions savings to emissions could increase to more than 4:1 by 2030," he says.

The chemical sector is hopeful that the report's findings will help the world's leaders as they look for policy consensus at the upcoming United Nations climate change conference being held in Copenhagen in December 2009.