Copenhagen – the Land of Opportunity for Chemicals?

Muriel Axfor looks at the companies hoping to benefit from the Copenhagen Accord, and the emerging efforts to be green.

The final outcome of the much heralded United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) may have fallen short of the expectations of many, but that hasn't stopped businesses from around the world being proactive in making it known that climate change is a priority issue and one they are committed to doing something about.

Held during December 2009, the Copenhagen summit became the place where businesses, from retailers to car manufacturers, producers of personal care products and the chemical industry as a whole, highlighted the steps they have been taking, for some time now, to tackle climate change.

Copenhagen Communiqué

Ahead of the summit, more than 500 businesses and business leaders made clear their desire for a robust and equitable deal to emerge from Copenhagen, signing what is known as the "Copenhagen Communiqué".

Presented to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon during September 2009, the Communiqué called for "an agreement that includes a global emissions cap and a long-term reduction pathway from 2013 to 2050."

Signatories hoped that elements of any agreement would include measurement, reporting and verification of emissions, and a framework to support adaptation and technology transfer in developing nations. But the communiqué also warned that an unsatisfactory result from the conference would create uncertainty and undermine confidence in global economic growth.

"Businesses made clear their desire for a deal to emerge from Copenhagen."

One of the signatories to the Copenhagen Communiqué was Genomatica, a private US company involved in sustainable chemicals.

"Signing the Copenhagen Communiqué makes good business sense for Genomatica and the global chemical manufacturers that have supported the appeal," said Genomatica chief executive officer and founder Christophe Schilling.

"Genomatica's technology allows the chemical industry to dramatically reduce its carbon emissions, its energy intensity and the resulting impact on climate change, while at the same time delivering improved profitability," Schilling added.

Sustainable feedstock and green chemistry

To demonstrate their ongoing commitment, many companies – not least those allied to the chemical sector – were able to showcase products and materials that highlighted the wide range of possibilities sustainable feedstock and green chemistry offered.

At Copenhagen's Bella Centre, the location of the UN's climate change conference, NatureWorks provided a floor covering made from its proprietary Ingeo biopolymer fibre.

Known as Eco2punch, the material is based on plants and not oil. It was estimated that producing the 20,000ft² of carpet required for the Bella Centre using the Ingeo fibre reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 60% when compared with a carpet made from fossil-based material such as polypropylene.

Following the close of the conference, Belgium-based company Galactic collected the carpet. Using its own process known as LOOPLA, the company was able to recycle it and turn it back into lactic acid, a value-added industrial feedstock and the main building block for the Ingeo biopolymer.

The COP15 also provided the backdrop for US-based cleaning solutions business Tennant Company to highlight its innovative and sustainable cleaning technologies. The centre piece of the company's environmentally friendly products was its ec-H20 technology, which is said to "electrically convert plain tap water into a powerful cleaning agent by temporarily altering the molecular structure of the water." Once activated, the water attracts dirt better than commonly used chemical detergents. Tennant was presented with a European Business Award for the technology in 2009.

Biotechnology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Transport was not forgotten at COP15. A fleet of Volvo limousines that ran on a biofuel made from straw was made available for ferrying politicians around Copenhagen. The fuel powering the cars, known as E85, comprised 85% biofuel, mixed with 15% gasoline.

The biofuel was made by Inbicon, a company developing technologies for converting straw into biofuel. Bio-industrial companies Novozymes and Danisco, both based in Denmark, provided the enzymes required to make the biofuel.

"Energy efficiency is one the most cost-effective ways of cutting emissions."

Novozymes' chief executive officer Steen Riisgaard also presented a study during the COP15 Climate Conference, which illustrated a "vision for a bio-based society".

The main conclusion from the study indicated that without using additional farmland it would be possible to use biotechnology to feed millions more people, and at the same time, avoid the release of millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

However, despite the many examples of how green technologies could positively impact the environment and describing climate change as "one of the greatest challenges of our time", politicians did not commit to any binding agreement on the global emissions of carbon dioxide.

The outcome of the COP15 was summarised in the Copenhagen Accord. The most significant developments included the commitment to establish a fund that would provide "approaching $30bn for the period 2010-2012" to help emerging and developing economies deal with the impact of global warming.

The Accord also outlined a plan to "commit to a goal of mobilising jointly $100bn a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries." The funding will come from a wide variety of sources.

While such a commitment suggested the possibility of funding to help businesses transfer their green and energy efficient technologies to other countries, it became apparent that money would take some time to raise as the Accord outlined that the sources of finance were "public, private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance."

Energy-saving chemicals products and technologies

The chemical industry, under the umbrella of the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), has made known for some time the importance of its sector in helping to mitigate the impact of climate change. In 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", published ahead of the Copenhagen meeting, the ICCA highlighted that world leaders needed to emphasise the importance of energy efficiency as one the most cost-effective ways of cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

In the report, the ICCA asserted that chemical-based building insulation products reduced the energy needed to heat residential and commercial buildings in greater quantities than in the case of non-chemical alternatives. Along with greater energy efficiency, the ICCA also called for greater and support for the development and implementation of new technologies, and the provision of incentives for those willing to move quickly and take action on climate change.

The ICCA stated: "Many countries are developing low carbon transition plans, while the United Nations is developing a framework to guide long-term global greenhouse gas reductions. Such efforts will require greater use of innovative, energy-saving chemicals products and technologies."

COP15 conclusions

Much was expected from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The ultimate goal had been to conclude an agreement that would take the world beyond the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. But after so many days of negations, there was perhaps a greater sense of uncertainty as it was quickly concluded that the much more was needed in the way of negotiations.

"Copenhagen did not produce the agreement the world needs to address the collective climate challenge."

Perhaps the fact that the executive secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Yvo de Boer waited until mid-January to give a press briefing summing up the outcomes of the Copenhagen meeting indicated just how disappointed many have felt since its conclusion in mid-December.

In a statement, de Boer said: "It is fair to say that Copenhagen did not produce the full agreement the world needs to address the collective climate challenge. That only makes the task more urgent. The window of opportunity to come to grips with the issue is closing at the same rate as before."

Describing the Copenhagen Accord as representing a "political letter of intent", de Boer added, "We are now in a cooling-off period that gives useful and needed time for countries to resume their discussions with each other."

Politics undoubtedly has its part to play in acting on climate change, but industries across the board will continue to work on developing solutions that each make a small difference and may, collectively, succeed where COP15 has failed.