EPCA ’18: Petchems decarbonisation may take ‘half a century’ - former US energy secretary

10 October 2018 13:36 Source:ICIS News

VIENNA (ICIS)--The petrochemicals industry’s decarbonisation process may take “half a century” from now until it completely becomes carbon dioxide (CO2) free, a former US secretary of energy said on Wednesday.

Steven Chu, who served in President Barack Obama’s government between 2009 and 2013 encouraged the petrochemical industry, however, to start with small projects to decarbonise, focusing first in its energy supply.

Chu, a physicist,  stressed he did not have a political career but decided to serve under Obama prompted by the energy-related challenges the world is facing, and his deep belief that science can find the solutions to climate change.

He co-won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997.

Chu was addressing delegates at the closing lunch of the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) annual meeting.

“The chemical industry, and the petrochemical industry in particular, have the technical knowledge to do this [reduce CO2 emissions and ultimately decarbonise]. It’s going to take half a century, this doesn’t happen overnight,” said Chu.

He went on to say petrochemical companies could start with measures like producing electricity on site, therefore lowering their carbon footprint but also improve their financial metrics.

“There are new technologies, like the thermochemistry approach, and electric chemistry. You guys [petrochemicals] are the experts, and I look to you to test it at a small scale, partnering with universities or national laboratories,” said Chu.

“In 50 years we have to change. Again, we don’t know what the outcome will be [if we start acting now] but the sooner we start [the better] – the situation is turning very difficult.”

Chu was outspoken in his opposition to US President Trump’s environmental policies, and said it's worrying how high polluting industries are being granted laxer regulatory standards regarding emissions.

Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce global CO2 emissions, because he viewed the climate pact as detriment to US industrial sectors.

Chu said that to meet those targets set in Paris, many industrial sectors would need to actually reduce their current emissions, or “go negative”, but those industrial sectors are vital to the prosperity of societies, he said.

“So this [going negative on emissions] is a significant challenge. We are not heading towards that,” said Chu.

“If you don’t change direction, you will end up where you are heading,” he added, quoting Lao Tze, an ancient Chinese philosopher.

But the current reality in the US is of concern,  Chu said. The current administration’s actions mean “not only the unravelling” of previous environmental regulations passed by Obama but also “several Presidents" before him.

He specifically mentioned how some industries like coal don’t have to have any pollution controls” at the moment.

“It’s horrifying when you look under the cover – it is far worse that what is been covered in the press. We are facing huge risks … and we are beginning to run out of time.”

Chu, a believer in science and its power to fight climate change, said renewable energy sources are fast becoming affordable and more powerful, while he called for more research and investment in currently-costly carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

“China and India are under a building drive, and sub-Saharan Africa will come after. The challenges are daunting and we have to figure out how to decarbonise all these things. We need to figure out who to capture CO2,” he said.

“The climate is changing, so this is our destiny. There are technical ways [to achieve this] and we just need to find technical solutions. I hope it will work.”

The EPCA meeting runs in Vienna on 8-10 October.

Picture source: YONHAP/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

By Jonathan Lopez