The Decarbonization Task

What to do about CO2?

According to the International Energy Agency, direct carbon dioxide emissions from primary chemical production amounted to 880 MtCO2 in 2018. In what the international body calls a “sustainable development scenario” emissions from primary chemicals should decline by about 10% below current levels in the next decade. For that scenario to happen, great decarbonization efforts are needed.

“Decarbonization” is an odd word choice when coming to think that the world is, chemically speaking, made of carbon, pointed out Peter Nagler, head of the Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences at A*STAR. Nevertheless, CO2 levels have become a currency for the measurement of climate change. To reduce CO2 levels the world will need to find and embrace carbon alternatives or different carbon sources and process these in a way that is both energy and waste efficient.

The bigger challenge will be to get rid of CO2 already in the air. To reduce global temperatures by one to two degrees Celsius as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, reducing current emissions or even stopping emissions altogether is not likely to be enough. The only method that effectively takes out carbon from the atmosphere is carbon capture and sequestration. It is interesting to see that one of the world’s largest integrated petroleum and chemical companies, ExxonMobil is also the world leader in carbon capture and storage: 40% of all carbon dioxide captured globally since 1970 was done by ExxonMobil. With the right technologies, CO2 can also be converted into other molecules – such as kerosene, methane, or, going further, olefins that are later made into polymers. “Today, we rely mostly on oil, but this is slated to change, not because of resource exhaustion, but because we can no longer afford to burn oil and release more CO2 into the atmosphere,” Nagler said.

This article explains how the chemical industry can help reduce its environmental footprint.


“Although our starting mission is to cut emissions from the source, we recognise that carbon capture and storage will become an important way to mitigate against GHG. With hydrogen production requiring the removal of CO2, we see significant opportunity in the hydrogen energy market.”

Peng Lam, Regional Director, Ineos Asia Pacific


Geraldine Chin, chairman and managing director at ExxonMobil Asia Pacific, told GBR that energy needs will outpace supply: “By 2040, global GDP is expected to almost double, yet energy use is anticipated to grow only by around 20%.” To close the gap, greater energy efficiencies are needed. Improved efficiency is the first area of intervention for carbon management. ExxonMobil leads the way with three co-generation plants in Singapore, which together produce 440 MW of electricity, enough to power 750,000 four-room HDB flats in the country.

Efficiencies go beyond energy use, to the better management of water, space and raw materials, as well as creating industrial symbiosis through which one producer’s waste becomes raw material for another. When asked what is a flagship project for SUEZ, Steve Clark, CEO of SUEZ Asia, pointed to the SCIP- Shanghai Chemical Industry Park (SCIP), the fourth largest integrated petrochemical park in the world, which shows the possibilities of circular plant design: “We capture and repurpose the industrial water by plugging each factory into our treatment network and reusing the treated water into our demineralized water production plant. Similarly, we collect the hazardous waste and take it through our 120,000 tons/year incinerator facility to produce steam, which is again fed back into the industry.”

SUEZ is working with chemical and pharma players in Singapore to help them realize similar synergies. In partnership with SUEZ, integrated pharma company SEQENS is building a solid recovered fuel (SRF) valorisation plant, turning industrial waste into steam at its French facility. In Singapore, SEQENS is the first manufacturing site that valorises the CO2 emitted by the petrochemical industry on Jurong Island, through water treatment and secondary industrial applications.

“By 2030, demand for freshwater is expected to outpace available supplies by 40%, so it is imperative that all businesses take steps to reduce their water consumption now to help avoid greater operational risks in the future.”

Allan Yong, Senior Vice President & Market Head, South East Asia, Ecolab


“An important lasting impact of the pandemic is that it has made everyone more sensitive to the idea that whatever happens in one part of the globe can quickly, and often inevitably, impact another one. There is a powerful analogy between the pandemic and climate change, both reminding us that local issues cannot be isolated.”

Roger Marchioni, Asia Director for Chemicals and Polymers, Braskem

More companies are adopting LCA (life cycle assessment) methodology as a structured tool to identify improvement areas at their production sites. Lubricants producer Infineum applies LCA as a practical method but also adopts a “Life Cycle Thinking” in the words of Asia Pacific sales director John Hong. “Standardizing the methods of assessment is important if we are going to compare products, processes, raw materials and even sources of energy in our industry,” Hong emphasized.

The need for higher efficiency calls for more use of digital tools to accurately monitor the running of factories. Andreas Hauser, managing director at German inspections company TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific, based in Singapore, believes sustainability is a precursor to digitalization: “Digitalization allows greater transparency in sustainable practices, more efficient manufacturing and ultimately the realization of a circular economy.”

Digital solution suppliers work closely with the industry to help achieve greater sustainability at its operations. The optimization of production has been traditionally driven by commercial reasons, minimizing costs and maximizing profits, but the focus on sustainability is adding another layer to these motivations.

Chemical players also apply greater diligence outside of the production floor, looking across the value chain at their suppliers and end-consumers. Gabriele Unger is the general manager of Together for Sustainability (TfS), an organization founded 10 years ago by chemical multinationals that wanted greater transparency of their supply chain and a system to audit suppliers. She noted chemical companies are more careful to associate themselves with suppliers that share the same sustainability values: “The more mature and advanced a company grows, the more selective they will be of their suppliers and the more they will engage them on improvements,” Unger said.

The organization counts 30 members after most recently welcoming Croda.


An energy-intensive industry, the chemical sector is working hard to transition to renewable energy sources. Currently, almost 90% of the world’s energy demand is met by fossil fuels, according to a BP statistical review. Moving away from hydrocarbon sources, solar and wind power infrastructure are becoming a standard investment for more chemical producers. Braskem, for instance, has invested US$200 million to date in solar and wind power. But other sources including biomass are also used with ingenuity. Marking a shift from using coal to power its operations, Seqens is currently investing in a biomass cogeneration project using waste wood and railway sleepers to produce steam at its flagship facility in France. The additional power will go into the French electricity grid.

Image courtesy of veeterzy on Unsplash