Chemicals a ‘hidden source of carbon emissions’ that need ‘green revolution’, says think-tank

The government is being urged to lead a ‘green revolution’ for UK chemical manufacturing after a report revealed that 60% of the industry’s emissions are from burning fossil fuels to generate heat for reactions.

The report, by think-tank Green Alliance, finds that although the UK chemicals industry produces less emissions than the global average, it is still the second largest industrial emitter of carbon in the UK and lacks an overarching pathway to achieving the country’s legally binding net zero emission target.

The industry has set itself a target to reduce emissions by 90% by 2050, but the report notes this goal relies too heavily on future carbon capture and storage (CCS) measures and highlights that progress on reducing emissions has stalled over the past decade.

Chemicals and their derivatives are used in more than 90% of manufactured products and materials in the UK, according to the report, which highlights the significant carbon footprint of making and using many everyday products such as washing up liquid and laundry tablets.

For example, it suggests the production of laundry tablets and their breakdown in sewage works contributes the equivalent emissions of 660,000 cars a year without even factoring in the hot water used.

In 2021, around 60% of UK chemical manufacturers’ total emissions came from burning fossil fuels onsite to create the heat that forms primary chemicals such as ammonia and ethylene. Around 73% of the heat demand for chemical processing has not yet been electrified for low temperature processes, which are below around 500°C, according to the report.

Green Alliance suggests that low carbon electric boilers and heat pumps could provide around three quarters of the industry’s heat demand. It also calls on the government to incentivise this shift to using heat pumps over power plants reliant on fossil fuels as well as encouraging the electrification in the industry by offering access to cheap renewable energy.

These measures, it suggests, could decrease the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels and unstable global supply chains.

Liam Hardy, policy analyst at Green Alliance, said: “The chemicals used in everyday products are a huge hidden source of carbon emissions. What we now need is for the government to help British manufacturers make their production processes greener.

“This should not only help to reduce our carbon footprint and make the UK a science leader but can also safeguard good jobs in our industrial heartlands.”

The UK chemical industry already has a turnover of around £70 billion and supports around 160,000 jobs, according to the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic).

Jonathan Hague, head of clean future science and technology at UK founded beauty and personal care company Unilever, said addressing the emissions from fossil fuel-based chemicals will be key to reaching the UK’s overall net zero target.

He said that Unilever has committed to halving the greenhouse gas impact of its products per consumer by 2030 and reaching net zero in its value chain by 2039.

“Alongside making our business more sustainable, we see this as an opportunity to provide the billions of people we serve with better home care products that don’t harm the planet,” he continued.

Technology development lead at Croda International - a ‘British speciality chemicals company’ based in England - Sarah Davidson said: “As the third major chemical company to have our science-based target validated to the 1.5°C pathway, we recognise the importance of support from policy makers, and the chemical industry as a whole, to help reduce GHG emissions across supply chains.”