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.

As highlighted in the EU Chemical Industry Transition Pathway, our industry must change how we produce and what we produce in less than thirty years from now. As part of this transformation we have to reduce the use of non-renewable resources, including carbon, in our production processes. Restoring sustainable carbon cycles can help us do just that.  

Discover our positions on different aspects of sustainable carbon cycles: 

1. What are sustainable carbon cycles and why are they important? 

The concept of Sustainable carbon cycles describes the available means to gradually increase the amount of non-fossil alternative carbon feedstock  used to manufacture our products and contribute to Europe’s climate neutrality goals.  By facilitating the reuse of carbon that is already in the system or in the atmosphere, sustainable carbon cycles help us maximise circularity and minimise possible carbon losses. And, where a carbon loss cannot be prevented, sustainable carbon cycles help us minimise the impact of such loss. To reach these goals, sustainable carbon cycles rely on a broad array of complementary technologies and efficient processes. It includes using alternative carbon sources like sustainable biomass, or  deploying technologies like Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) and chemical recycling. As our final goal is to source carbon in a sustainable way and “recycle” it, these technologies offer a way to unlock the potential of carbon circularity.  

How sustainable carbon cycles can help us on our way to climate neutrality ?

The chemical sector needs, and will need in the future, carbon molecules as a raw material for our products. However, through sustainable carbon cycles we have the opportunity to get the carbon we need from different sources, ultimately controlling the impact we have on the carbon concentration in the atmosphere.  

The main four options are:   

1. Sustainable biomass = using carbon from plants 

2. Atmospheric carbon = using carbon from the atmosphere 

3. Technosphere carbon = using carbon from industrial processes 

4. Geosphere carbon = using carbon that in previous lifecycles of manufactured products came from fossil sources 

Want to learn more on sustainable carbon cycles? visit the circular carbon webpage here.

Download the full vision in Annex I of the cefic position on restoring sustainable carbon cycles.

2. Cefic’s position on restoring sustainable carbon cycles

“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. The only way to reconcile this essential need for carbon molecules and the need to curb CO2 emissions is to develop alternative and sustainable sources of carbon. 

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

The chemical industry is 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 the 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 to source this carbon from more sustainable sources.  

Restoring sustainable carbon cycles can offer a solution for that. Indeed, if powered with low-carbon energy, technologies like chemical recycling or Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) can unlock alternative and sustainable sources of carbon. At the same time, chemical products can contribute even further to abating emissions by “absorbing” and “storing” carbon for 10-40 years in a single pass.  

To unlock this enormous potential and significantly contribute to Europe’s climate neutrality goal, Cefic has identified some key recommendations: 

  • Avoiding emissions in the first place should remain the EU’s priority, while removals will need to focus on hard-to-abate emissions; 
  • It is key to have continuous support for the development, demonstration and deployment of advanced technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Utilisation  and chemical recycling to generate investments into these technologies.  
  • We should look beyond emissions at the production phase but consider its carbon footprint along the value chain. While certain processes and technologies remain energy intensive, they bring a reduction of GHG emissions at the product’s end-of-life, generating benefits across the value chain. we need an holistic framework to support these circular technologies.  
  • A comprehensive and supportive policy framework that makes alternative/circular feedstock and products market competitive is needed. 
  • The concept of “non-fossil carbon sources”  should be clarified and should include all sources of sustainable circular carbon, including molecules that in previous lifecycles were sourced from fossil sources. 
  • It is important to give a coherent signal on circularity by including municipal waste incineration in the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) (with necessary exemptions for hazardous waste and sewage sludge) and by including the reuse and recycling of carbon stored in materials of (end of use) products in the eco-design and waste related legislation. 
  • When CO2 is captured and repurposed for chemical production, it should be recognized in the EU ETS as avoided emissions. 

Download the Cefic position on restoring sustainable carbon cycles, for more details and further policy recommendation.

3. Cefic’s proposal for a methodology to calculate the share of non-fossil carbon in chemical and plastic products 

In its Communication on Sustainable Carbon Cycles and the so-called “Industrial Sustainable Carbon challenge”, the European Commission has the aspiration to have “at least 20% of the carbon used in the chemical and plastic products from sustainable non-fossil sources by 2030.”  

Cefic believes that the first step towards this aspirational target should be clarifying its scope. Cefic also identifies the source point as the best point of calculation in the chemical value chain to avoid double-counting. By doing so, Cefic proposes an equation that allows to calculate the share of sustainable non-fossil carbon used in chemical and plastic products.  

Download the methodology and Cefic’s proposed equation in Annex II of the Cefic position on restoring sustainable carbon cycles.

4. Cefic’s position on carbon removals 

While avoiding additional emissions is and will remain the priority on the road to 2050 the role of (technological) carbon removals will be key to offset hard-to-abate emissions and achieve climate neutrality. To this end, Cefic hopes that Commission’s initiative to develop a regulatory framework for the certification of carbon removals will recognise the role of these technologies. .  

However, we should not forget that carbon removal technologies have long investment cycles. To make sure we will have enough carbon removal capacity in place for the ambitions of tomorrow, we need clear investment signals today. 

To send these right signals to investors and create enabling conditions for carbon removals, Cefic recommends the following actions: 

1. Clarify and detail the concept of “hard-to-abate emissions,” and recognise the influence that local conditions have on addressing such emissions.  

2. Deliver a robust and credible EU certification system based on the QU.A.L.ITY criteria: 


QUantification: carbon should be considered as “removed” only if it causes a net reduction in atmospheric CO2 concentration. This means that it is either directly  captured from the atmosphere or comes from biogenic carbon (which means, the carbon comes from biomass).  Furthermore, using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for biogenic carbon could result in carbon removals. Therefore, it would be useful to have tailored certification methodologies to regulate this specific application of CCS.  


Additionality: according to the additionality principle, current carbon removals represent the baseline to which new carbon removals should be summed up. This means, any future carbon removal activity will be added to carbon removal activities already in place. As substantial carbon removals are currently not in place in industry, the baseline should be considered close to zero.  


Long-term storage: If atmospheric or biogenic carbon is “captured” inside chemical products, increasing circularity of these products is key to keeping the carbon into the loop. From this point of view, it is clear that circularity of products can play an important role to the objectives of carbon removal, a role that should be properly recognised. Recognition can be achieved by establishing product’s specific methodologies and thresholds reflecting the principles of durable storage, and by adopting the notion “carbon removal products” instead of “carbon storage in products”.  


SustainabilITY: application of the “do no significant harm” principle within the certification system. 

3. Recognise removal credits under relevant enabling policy frameworks, including EU ETS. This would allow to use carbon removal certificates for EU ETS compliance in the future. 

Download Cefic’s position on Carbon Removals in Annex III of Cefic’s position on restoring sustainable carbon cycles.

Download the Cefic’s Cefic response to Commission consultation on Industrial Carbon Management.