Restoring sustainable carbon cycles: the chemical industry as a solution provider


The European chemical industry shares the EU’s climate-neutrality ambition and is investing in the technologies and solutions of tomorrow. But there is something we cannot change: the sector has an intrinsic need for carbon molecules.

 “Carbon is the atom of life, of our societies and economies”: this is the starting point for the European Commission’s Communication on Sustainable Carbon Cycles. From pharmaceuticals, to (bio-based) plastics, organic chemistry needs carbon molecules to shape the world we live in. To reconcile this essential need for carbon molecules and the need to curb CO2 emissions, it is key to have access to alternative and sustainable sources of carbon.

Cefic welcomes the European Commission’s initiative on restoring sustainable carbon cycles. It represents a major step towards an effective carbon management policy and sets some important guiding principles for the transition of the chemical sector towards 2050 and beyond.

The chemical industry is increasingly looking at ways to reduce its own carbon footprint. While the sector has already reduced its carbon intensity by using energy more efficiently, carbon is and will remain a key building block for organic chemistry. As most of the CO2 is embedded in products and currently gets emitted when they reach the end of their life, the next important step will be about sourcing this carbon from more sustainable sources. Implementing sustainable carbon cycles using low-carbon energy can offer a solution for that.
As an alternative to virgin fossil carbon, the chemical sector can use “recycled” molecules coming either from waste, from bio feedstock, or from CO2/CO streams “captured” from industrial emissions.

Maximising carbon circularity and minimising losses of carbon is key to create sustainable carbon cycles. To support this goal in the longer term, chemical products could contribute to a neutral (or even negative) emission balance by becoming a sink for emissions of other sectors, or even directly from the atmosphere.

 Cefic believes that for the chemical sector, keeping carbon in the loop via sustainable and climate-resilient carbon cycles offers a more efficient approach to climate mitigation than an approach focused solely on “decarbonization.”

Cefic’s recommendations  

First and foremost, it is essential to keep supporting the development, demonstration and deployment of the advanced technologies needed for sustainable carbon cycles. Next to funding schemes, it is important to have in place risk-sharing measures to support investment in innovative technologies at demonstration plant level and first-of-its kind commercial level.

Such support should be coupled with clear investment signals. It would make sense to refine the EU’s definition of climate-neutrality, including on a sectoral level, and develop a regulatory framework for the recognition of emissions avoidance resulting from carbon circularity. It is also important to develop a carbon removal certifications system with a clear terminology and robust methodologies.

Finally, to truly unlock the potential of sustainable carbon cycles, it is fundamental to put in place an enabling policy framework. To this end, we recommend the following:

  • Develop a comprehensive and supportive policy framework that makes alternative/circular feedstock and products market competitive;
  • Clarify the concept of “non-fossil carbon sources” to include all sources of sustainable circular carbon, including molecules that in previous lifecycles were sourced from fossil fuels;
  • Give a coherent signal on circularity by discouraging waste incineration through EU ETS (Emissions Trading System) (with necessary exemptions for hazardous waste and sewage sludge) and by including in eco-design and waste related legislations the reuse and recycling of carbon stored in materials of (end of use) products.
  • When CO2 is captured and repurposed for chemical production, it should be recognized in the ETS as avoided emissions;
  • Chemicals products can contribute to abating emissions by “absorbing” and “storing” carbon for 10-40 years in a single pass. Their role as “carbon storage” should be recognized;
  • Emission abatement should be acknowledged for its impact across the whole value chain. In this way it would be possible to support technologies that have the potential to  substantially reduce total GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions .

For more details and further policy recommendation, we suggest to dive into our latest position paper on Restoring Sustainable Carbon Cycles.