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Driving sustainable chemical production: Defining criteria for climate-friendly basic chemicals as a basis to establish green lead markets

Panel: 3. Drivers to change

Simon Bußmann, Germany
Tobias Fleiter, Fraunhofer ISI, Germany
Frank Marscheider-Weidemann, Fraunhofer ISI, Germany


The production of basic chemicals is responsible for high levels of carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change. While it is technically possible to produce basic chemicals in a climate-friendly way, these processes are often more costly than conventional processes. Establishing green lead markets with certified climate-friendly basic chemicals can incentivise the adoption of climate-friendly production processes and encourage the development of innovative technologies. The certification of climate-friendly basic chemicals requires emission thresholds and the use of transparent methodologies. While various methodologies and approaches exist, there is no consistent framework yet that can be applied to define climate-friendly chemical products and thus provide the requirements for green lead markets.

Here we present a methodology for setting emission thresholds for defining climate-friendly ammonia and ethylene, which are high-volume basic chemicals. The analysis was accompanied by a stakeholder process initiated by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) from November 2022 to November 2023. The proposed methodology builds upon the Product Carbon Footprint (PCF) methodology developed specifically for basic chemicals by Together for Sustainability (TfS), an initiative of chemical companies to promote sustainable practices in the industry. However, the TfS guidelines focus on the production phase of the value chain (cradle-to-gate) and do not include post-production emissions.

We calculated the emissions during production, including the supply chain, and the emissions of fossil carbon at the end of the life cycle for three potential ammonia production processes and ten variants of ethylene production processes using literature values. We evaluated various established and climate-friendly processes, including the use of plastic waste as feedstock through pyrolysis or gasification, hydrogen-based routes and options using carbon capture and storage. The approach and assumptions were discussed with relevant stakeholders from industry, politics, and other interest groups in the process of the BMWK and adjusted as required.

It has been found that the incineration of ethylene as typical end-of-life treatment in Germany results in emissions twice as high as those caused by the established production processes. It appears reasonable to assume that all bound carbon will eventually contribute to climate change in the form of carbon dioxide. Thus, it is suggested that the system boundary proposed by TfS should be extended to incorporate the emissions during end-of-life processes into the PCF, assuming complete combustion. To encourage a switch in feedstock, carbon from waste and organic material bound in products is considered non-fossil and therefore not included in end-of-life emissions. The fossil emissions resulting from the examined production processes including end-of-life processes differ by a factor of up to 12. Thresholds have been defined for 6 levels of climate-friendly ammonia and ethylene, ranging from "near zero" to "low emission" A, B, C, D and finally E. Climate-friendly ammonia could already be produced today via green hydrogen and climate-friendly ethylene via the Methanol-to-Olefins route, both of which achieve a "near zero" rating.

The definition of climate-friendly chemicals can be used to develop measures to create green lead markets. These could be, for example, voluntary labelling or procurement quotas. A definition for climate friendly plastic products can build on the work done for ethylene. Other factors, like the amount of mechanically recycled material, the recyclability of the product, material efficiency and the use phase, should also be taken into account. Finally, the results are relevant for policy development at EU level, including the setting of minimum requirements for products in regulations such as the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation.

NOTE: eceee is not allowed to make this presentation public until later.