Green chemicals require renewable energy

The worldwide chemical industry generates enormous carbon emissions and consumes about 10 per cent of energy used in business, households and other end users, according to the International Energy Agency.

Many advocates of sustainability therefore want to promote so-called ‘green’ chemicals and cut down the amount of energy use and the emissions that come with it.

But researchers recently found that the amount of renewable energy necessary to decarbonize the global chemical industry was so great that activists should focus first on greener transportation and home heating.

Writing in the journal PNAS, the researchers in Germany and the United States studied fossil-fuel-based hydrocarbons that make polymers and clothing, paint thinners and glue, film and packaging and rocket fuel.

Sustainable alternatives exist for all those products, but the cost of transitioning to them would be prohibitive without significant renewable electricity that would potentially be more than double the amount of renewable electricity set to come online by 2030, the researchers found.

“There is a clear technical path to reducing the chemical industry’s emissions with carbon capture, but real-world economics limited the actual deployment of these technologies,” wrote Ars Technica.

So political and industry leaders might want to focus their efforts on smaller-scale improvements while putting off greening the chemical industry. The exception to the rule is if chemical companies build facilities near areas where sustainable energy was plentiful.

“Many of these areas are located in Africa, Australia, and South America, where the amount of available renewable energy resources is more than 50 times higher than the current total primary energy demand,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Image credit: Lance Cheung via Flickr

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