Commentary: Enter the climate hothouse

14 December 2012 10:00  [Source: ICB]

In early December, the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP18, took place in Doha, Qatar, against a backdrop of accelerating global greenhouse gas emissions.

This annual event faces what some might say is the hopeless task of making progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally by 50% by 2050. With major economies such as China and the US in a standoff, refusing to sign up to binding emissions reduction targets through the Kyoto process, the chances of success seem slim.

Chemical factory Rex Features

 Rex Features

Global chemical industry must also act on carbon

Into the fray for the first time ever, this year the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) - representing a fair proportion of the global industry - was in attendance as an official observer organisation.

The ICCA believes it would be more productive to move the debate on from the all but impossible task of applying targets and working out which countries should pay for what, and how. ICCA wants the UN and others to pay more attention to cutting emissions through the adoption of cleaner and greener technology, while maintaining negotiations towards targets. It may have a point.

In an interview ahead of the meeting, Russell Mills, global director, energy and climate change policy, Dow Chemical and vice chairman, ICCA Energy and Climate Change Leadership Group, said the ICCA was taking the message about carbon reduction through the use of advanced building materials plus cleaner energy production to COP18.

He said: "Most [carbon control] actions have been about trying to advance global climate change negotiations but these are moving very slowly. Or for governments to try and manage production issues which they frankly can't control because people can produce wherever they like.

"But these are things governments can control. Here is a huge opportunity to make some real progress while working on the longer-term issues of reaching a glo- bal agreement."

Has the chemical industry yet put its own house in order? Progress on this front is patchy at best. Although carbon emissions are decreasing in Europe and the US, this may have as much to do with decreased production as improved efficiency.

According to Mills: "Globally, we are the largest single consumer of energy among industrial sectors and therefore a large and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of that comes from growth in emerging economies, which are quite carbon intensive. We have to tackle our own carbon footprint as well as helping others in the value chain."

Applying global targets to the chemical industry will be impossible until countries such as China cooperate. Chemical trade associations in China and many other emerging markets have so far failed to sign up to full membership of ICCA.

"For a chemical industry target to make sense it has to be global. Eighty percent of chemical industry emissions come from 10-20 building blocks produced by a couple of handfuls of companies globally. Many of these are state-owned enterprises in emerging economies. That's where most of the growth is and much of the new production capacity. To have a target you have to get these people involved."

The ICCA is spreading its outreach to these regions. Mills says that long term, it would make sense to have global targets, but the people ICCA works with, including these big state-owned enterprises, have to feel comfortable working with the organisation and see the benefits of carbon control. He adds: "At some point in the future we do have to find a way to decarbonise our sector faster than the current 'business as usual' curve but that will require global action."

Mills sounds genuinely optimistic about chemical industry progress in carbon control. "We're more positive than many people because if you go back only a couple of years even a discussion on energy or resource efficiency was taken negatively by the big oil producers. And now here we are having these discussions in the Gulf, which is the heart of energy and petrochemicals. This shows that all parts of the energy production and consumption side are now better aligned than they were a few years ago."

It is encouraging that the GPCA has just become a fully fledged member of ICCA. There are two Chinese observer organisations but progress towards full membership for China and other emerging countries has been slow.

By: Will Beacham
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