If chemistry becomes more sustainable, then all of society will benefit

The global emission of greenhouse gases further increased in 2018, just like timber felling, the reduction in biodiversity and the melting of polar ice. However, to say that all climate signals are on red is a pessimistic and unrealistic viewpoint. Because although the chemical industry is a major consumer of fossil energy and responsible for a substantial proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time, the sector is a driving force for finding solutions that provide a window to a clean and sustainable world.

The chemistry sector is working hard on the transition to sustainability. In a nutshell: think of the switch from production based on fossil energy to production based on sustainable energy, such as green hydrogen and electricity generated by solar and wind power. And of new processes for electrochemical and electric catalytic conversion; storage and use of CO2; improved separation processes; the production of building blocks like hydrogen through CO2-neutral processes; and new resources based on biomass, waste processing or the chemical unravelling of polymers.

Perhaps the most important factor is that sustainable measures realised in the chemistry sector have a considerable impact on society because chemistry provides solutions in many sectors. Examples include chemical processes and materials for energy storage and conversion; new, sustainable materials for wind turbines and solar cells produced in a CO2-neutral manner; chemical processes and materials for extracting energy from water; the generation of new and clean fuels for the chemical storage of energy via hydrogen and CO2 conversion; and new chemical building blocks for sustainable materials.

The transition to a sustainable chemistry and with that to a sustainable economy effectively begins with the electrification of the chemical industry. The success of this will initially stand or fall with the generation and availability of green energy, which requires an interplay between the chemistry sector, energy sector and government bodies. As this concerns unparalleled large-scale investment in the generation, storage and distribution of green energy, society can only afford to make those investments once. At present, the energy sector, chemistry sector and government bodies are waiting to see which one of them will seize the initiative. However, we do not have the time to keep on delaying, as that could have disastrous consequences. Yet this is also a pessimistic and unrealistic perspective, because with all the new technologies and a joint decisiveness, society holds the key to turn the tide.

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