Chemical industry casts a critical eye on the Copenhagen summit

Emission Impossible?

26 February 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Lou Reade/London

Despite thousands of delegates descending on Copenhagen, agreements seem further away than ever. The chemical industry, meanwhile, is wary of unilateral commitments
When expectations run high - as they did before last December's UN Climate Change Council meeting in Copenhagen - it is not surprising if results fall a little short. But the overwhelming feeling from Copenhagen was that little - if anything - was achieved.

In brief, the conference agreed a framework (the Copenhagen Accord) for cutting carbon emissions to restrict temperature rises to no more than 2˚C (3.6˚F) - though it is not legally binding.

"It's an impressive accord," said UN Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary Yvo de Boer. "But not an accord that is legally binding; not an accord that pins down industrialized countries to individual targets; not an accord that specifies what major developing countries will do."

In advance of the meeting, the chemical industry - through the International Council of Chemical Associations - laid out eight policy principles to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including: developing a global framework; focusing on the largest, most effective and lowest-cost ways of reducing GHGs; and pushing for energy efficiency.

"While the Copenhagen Accord was a small step forward, the process has failed to deliver a level playing field," says Nick Sturgeon, head of climate change and energy at the UK's Chemical Industry Association.

He points out that European nations have already agreed to a 20% cut in emissions by 2020, based on 1990 levels. In an attempt to drive nations towards an agreement, the EU came to Copenhagen with proposals to increase these cuts to 30%. Delegates went home without agreeing any targets - but the EU has not abandoned its new goal.

"Moving from 20% to 30% is a strategy that the EU could do with reviewing," he says. In light of the general reception to the Copenhagen Accord, Sturgeon is not completely negative about its value.

"It at least keeps the process going, and that's positive. But for industry, the crucial thing is to have some binding targets - and we seem to be a long way from that. The prospect of getting an inclusive agreement by Mexico in November [the next round of climate change talks] does not look good."

 Rex Features/Chris Eyles
Joachim Krueger, executive director of energy, HSE and logistics at European chemical tradew body Cefic, believes the EU's attitude of "leading from the front" has backfired. "To take this leadership role in reduction commitments has not impressed anybody in other regions," says Krueger. "It will only make Europe less competitive."

At the end of this year, European countries - and companies - will begin to implement a new phase of the EU Emission Trading System, based on performance benchmarks - which Cefic believes should be based on the existing 20% target, rather than the proposed 30% target.

"The 20% target is challenging, and it's also a cash drain. Europe is the only region to have such binding commitments - giving us an extra cost burden." And Cefic believes that Europe must back away from its "splendid isolation" if it is to maintain its influence at future talks. "If the global talks derailed - and Europe was left isolated - that would be the worst-case scenario for us," says Krueger.

Whenever an agreement is finally reached - and whatever the targets might be - Krueger believes that the chemical industry has a crucial role to play. "Boosting energy efficiency will give the best payback, and help to cut emissions significantly. Our industry is a key enabler, whether it is through lighter metals or developing materials for solar cells."

"The 20% target is challenging, and it's also a cash drain"
Joachim Krueger, executive director of energy, Cefic 
He points to many others: advanced catalysts, that can help chemical reactions run at lower temperatures; process intensification, which would lead to smaller production facilities with higher energy efficiency; and feedstocks derived from renewable sources. "We are also at the forefront in chemistry solutions for zero-energy buildings - by developing new types of insulation," he says.

Global trade body the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) also sees itself as a technology provider. Stephanie Batchelor, manager of state and international policy, attended Copenhagen as part of BIO's delegation to showcase some of the industry's technologies - such as US-headquartered Genencor's BioIsoprene, a rubber polymerized from sugar, rather than oil. The company has worked with Goodyear of the US to develop tires from the material.

"This is just one way that biotechnology can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," she says. Other technologies seen in Copenhagen included: fabrics and carpets made from US-based NatureWorks' Ingeo - also derived from sugar, and offering huge emission reductions in comparison with the poplyethylene terephthalate (PET) or nylon that it replaces; and enzymes from Denmark's Novozymes, which can be used to bake bread using less energy.

But BIO points out that these technologies do not come free - and must be protected. "It is difficult and expensive to develop these kinds of products," she says. "That's all made possible by the innovator protecting them with intellectual property [IP]."

Batchelor says that pressure to exclude some types of technology from patenting - thereby making them available to developing countries - would be counterproductive. The same would be true for 'compulsory licensing' of products that already exist.

"If IP protection was not in place, these technologies would probably not be developed. IP gives the incentive for continued investment." While the Copenhagen Accord made no reference to IP, BIO believes that it is an important ongoing issue.

"Before Mexico, we'll try to make people understand that IP is not an obstacle to what they are trying to achieve. People tend to see IP as a barrier, but we see it as a facilitator."

At a meeting in Bonn, Germany - one month after Copenhagen - de Boer gave his reaction to the conference.

"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."

More on EU emission targets

A leading climate-change researcher has written a book explaining some of the science behind his subject. Robert Kandel, emeritus professor at Ecole Polytechnic in Paris, wrote Turning The Tide On Climate Change at the behest of European chemical trade body Cefic. "Some of the things leading up to Copenhagen were positive in the sense of the US no longer being in denial over the issue," he says.

He says the chemical industry will have an important role to play in delivering climate change commitments. "I've tried to explain to people - inside and outside the chemical industry - why there is an imperative to cut greenhouse gas emissions," he says. "An excess of environmental rhetoric can provoke allergic reactions in industry. People need to know it has a very sound scientific basis." And in the end, he says, Copenhagen was unable to live up to expectations. "There was excessive expectation for Copenhagen. What happened there seemed a disappointment."

Author: Lou Reade

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