Life on earth is carbon based. And carbon is everywhere: it circulates through the land, ocean, and atmosphere, in what is known as the carbon cycle. Which is why, says Michael Carus, decarbonisation is a misnomer. “We need a defossilisation strategy,” he emphasised.
With all the talk about carbon these days, confusion is bound to arise. If carbon is the basis of all life, why the concern about carbon emissions- and the push for companies to account for these? And more to the point: what is meant by decarbonisation?
Sustainable Plastics turned to the experts at nova-Institute in Germany for answers. An independent research and consultancy company with a focus on the transition of the chemical and material industry to renewable carbon, nova-Institute is the founder of the Renewable Carbon Initiative, or RCI. This initiative was created in response to the difficulties experienced by chemical and raw materials producers in overcoming the challenges posed both by the climate goals set by the European Union and the sustainability expectations held by societies around the globe. It became clear that more was needed beyond simply switching to renewable energy, said nova-Institute founder Michael Carus and researcher Christopher vom Berg.
The biggest contributor of carbon to the atmosphere is humankind. Humans, with their industries and activities emit an estimated 10 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Carbon is taken out of the geosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere and ending up in the atmosphere in the form of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Curbing these emissions has become an urgent priority around the world in a process known somewhat inaccurately as ‘decarbonisation’.
As Michael Carus points out, decarbonisation is not an option for either the chemical or the raw materials sector; both are based entirely on the use of carbon. Without carbon, these industries cannot exist. What is needed is an alternative strategy, which he calls defossilisation. Defossilisation will be accomplished through the use of renewable carbon.
Renewable carbon comprises all carbon sources that avoid or substitute the use of any additional fossil carbon from the geosphere. Renewable carbon can come from the biosphere, atmosphere or technosphere – but not from the geosphere – and sources include biomass, CO2-based and waste plastics recycling. Renewable carbon circulates between biosphere, atmosphere or technosphere, creating a circular carbon economy.
Accounting for carbon
Companies today are increasingly being required to account for the CO2 emissions they produce. It is a step in the right direction, said Carus and Vom Berg.
Accounting for CO2 emissions certainly helps to create a system that allows to effectively measure emission reductions, and therefore also is an effective means to establish a baseline to achieve these reductions, they noted.
The EU Emission Trading System is an EU-wide cap-and-trade accounting system that covers a large share of European emissions and enforces reductions in emission levels by lowering the maximum volume of emissions yearly. The EU is looking to extend the system to further sectors (e.g., construction and transport) as well, and is setting up a carbon border adjust mechanism to prevent emission-producing activities like manufacturing from being driven out of Europe. In recent years, the EU has eliminated many surplus emission allowances, sharpening the EU ETS, which is reflected by the significant price increase of CO2 emission allowances, to almost €100 per tonne of CO2.
Next to this, there are also various company-specific emission accounting systems, such as the widely established GHG Protocol. Companies collect information on all of their emission-causing activities and can then define action items to reduce their emissions in ways that are compatible with the climate targets from the Paris Agreement and Net-Zero by 2050.
The Science-Based Targets Initiative is one of the most commonly utilised initiative to define GHG emission reduction targets.
Company-wide emissions are usually separated into three so-called scopes. Scope 1 contains all direct emissions caused by activities of the company, Scope 2 contains all indirect emissions caused by energy & electricity needs of the company, and Scope 3 emissions encompasses all emissions that are not caused by activities under direct control of the company. This includes for example extraction / growth of raw materials, purchased goods and services, transportation, use of products and end-of-life of products. Scope 3 is here the toughest nut to crack, as these emissions are outside of direct control of the company doing the GHG emission accounting and involves all relevant along the entire value chain. This means full Scope 3 emission accounting requires collaboration among complex value chains with multiple partners all over the world – and not everywhere emission accounting is fully established as of yet. Often, companies therefore focus on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and treat Scope 3 emission reductions as optional or an aspiring target, which can particularly be an issue in value chains where Scope 3 emissions make up the bulk of a company’s emissions, like the chemical and plastics industries.
Still, the main accounting systems are widely accepted, scientifically endorsed, and in essence reliable, Carus noted.
However, while they can play a part in moving towards full defossilisation, accounting alone will not suffice, he said. Take, for example, the practice of (mainly fossil) carbon capture and storage (CCS). If properly implemented, emissions are captured where they occur, and then removed permanently, for example, by underground storage. As a result, there are no GHG emissions to be accounted for. This is accepted practice in the EU ETS, for example, and leaves the door open to continued utilisation of fossil feedstock - as long as the emissions are captured. “It is why we are cautious when it comes to fossil-based CCS because while it may reduce emissions, it is also a backdoor for fossil industries to continue extracting their feedstocks,” he explained.
Another point to consider is the applied methodology. Biogenic carbon for example, is widely accepted as net-zero in terms of emissions, meaning that the biomass absorbs the same amount of carbon at beginning of life that is released at end-of-life. Different accounting options treat biogenic carbon differently: by either not counting the carbon uptake and then not counting the emissions – the most commonly applied option - or by accounting for the uptake as negative emissions and then counting the emissions in the normal way. For companies in the beginning or middle of the value chain, however, the first option leads to situations where biogenic carbon shows no advantage over fossil carbon (at the factory gate), because the final emissions of the fossil carbon product are not yet accounted for, and the final emissions from the biogenic products are not counted.
Nonetheless, if the methodologies are sound, agreed upon and in place, and the entire life cycle of services and products is considered, then accounting systems can help to drive defossilisation. Properly accounted for, renewable carbon sources help to tackle Scope 3 emissions by replacing fossil carbon, and in this way, contribute to the defossilisation ambitions.
Sustainable carbon chains
While nova-Institute and the Renewable Carbon Initiative focus strongly on the importance of defossilisation, the EU seemingly is placing its faith on recycling of the waste plastic that is already in existence. Asked about their thoughts on that, both Michael Carus and Christopher vom Berg were straightforwardly emphatic.
“Yes, we believe defossilisation is essential. Fossil feedstocks are responsibly for roughly 70% of all humanmade greenhouse gas emissions. They are at the root of the problem that needs to be addressed if we are to tackle climate change. And yes, the EU is heavily focused on recycling - but even the best recycling system is not able to run perfect cycles, where 100% of the raw material input is recycled at end-of-life.”
They created a simple diagram showing a theoretical, highly efficient plastics recycling life cycle with an estimated 70% recycling rate. The losses that inevitably occur in the life cycle, lead to the need for additional carbon feedstock to be supplied to the system. This additional carbon demand should not come from fossil feedstock, but instead from the other renewable carbon options, biomass and CO2.
Hence, recycling alone will not suffice to create 100% sustainable carbon chains. And while biomass and CO2 utilisation are often regarded with scepticism – biomass because of biodiversity issues, CO2 emissions because some see this as a high-energy way to postpone emissions, both valid considerations – these critics are missing two key points.
“In the first place, not utilising biomass and CO2 means continuing to rely on fossil feedstocks; and second, these issues are solvable, and there are significant efforts being made to do so. CO2 can be utilised to create chemicals and plastics, something that is already happening at a large scale in industry, e.g., at steel plants. Products such as cleaning products, plastic bottles, methanol or kerosene made from CCU are already on the market today,” the researchers said.
A feasible transition
But is a transition to renewable carbon doable?
“A transition to renewable carbon is absolutely and truly feasible. The technologies exist, and are already out there in industrial, up-scaled settings,” said Carus.
The biggest issue is that they are more expensive than (the very cheap) fossil feedstock, and that rather young and innovative technologies have to compete with a highly efficient, heavily upscaled system with a built-up infrastructure and powerful lobbies.
“Many companies are willing to invest in renewable solutions. What is missing now are smart policies to build the bridge between now and 2050 for companies to remain competitive in the sustainability transformation,” he added.
This is precisely the goal of the Renewable Carbon Initiative. In just under three years, already almost 60 companies from the chemical and raw materials value chains have already joined, united under the goal of facilitating and speeding up the transition from fossil to renewable carbon.
“And we are always looking for more interested companies to join us and support the message, and to bring together as many value chains and stakeholders as possible,” concluded Carus.
(This article previously appeared in the May/June edition of Sustainable Plastics.