It is a question that no one is asking. Or at least, no one is hearing. In a world that is clamouring for sustainability and net zero carbon emissions how can anything be made without fossil fuel supported raw materials?
Even if the issue of energy generation alone is considered, the global economy is nowhere near ready to survive without oil and gas.
As Barton Swain, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal put it in a recent article, “The problem—whether or not you accept the premise that climate change threatens civilization—is that carbon-removal technologies are ineffective, and solar and wind power are nowhere near able to replace fossil fuel-based energy.”
It is a point raised by Peter Huntsman, the president, CEO and chairman of the multinational chemical manufacturer, Huntsman Corp.
“There’s not a single product I’m aware of in [Huntsman Corp.’s] entire portfolio of products that today consumes more energy, more raw materials to make the same product we made five years ago,” he explains. “Because if there’s such a product, our competition would’ve replaced it by now.”
And the same can be said for the future, because all of the objects used today will have to be improved upon to be viable in tomorrow’s market. For example, the phones and laptops of 2030 will need better raw materials and more advanced technology.
“It’s going to have to be lighter and stronger,” says Huntsman. “It’s going to have to have better memory, in the next five years. We’ve got to come up with the materials, the insulation, the durability, lightness and design, the capabilities.”
So, while some of the biggest corporations on the planet, led by some of the smartest leaders promote how to meet their company’s net zero commitments, no one is asking how Dow Chemical, Sabic, or BASF will meet their customers’ needs without fossil fuels.
This isn’t to say that Huntsman Corp. (with an annual turnover of about $8 billion) is in any better shape, only that at least its chairman is quite clear on where all its money comes from. It is made by turning hydrocarbons into practical raw materials used to make the paints, resins, composites, foams, and polymers for manufacturing the products which make the modern world.
“I speak from time to time in colleges,” says Huntsman. “I occasionally get students who say to me, ‘We’re boycotting your industry.’ I tell them, ‘Well, everything from your skateboard to your iPhone, to your clothes, to all those earrings, the makeup you’re wearing, everything—you are a customer. Thank you.’ They think the chemical industry is just plastic bags.”
Like most industrial chemists, Huntsman believes in humankind’s influence on climate change and that the chemical industry should be moving away from fossil fuels. However, solving the challenge will rely on much more than marketing rhetoric or government enforced restrictions.
Instead, the focus should be on appreciating what the chemical industry has achieved so far and acknowledging that scientific research and innovation hold the key to achieving environmentally friendly goals.
Much as historical problems, such as famine and poor harvests were solved by industrial chemists creating the Haber-Bosch method of fertiliser production. Or how chemical research has cured diseases, extended life expectancy through cleaning products and better water filtration systems. How industrial chemists have reduced waste through improved packing raw materials or enabled safer travel or cosmetics.
In the same way, the chemical industry is doing more with less.
“Today we’re emitting roughly 6,500 million metric tons of CO2,” notes Huntsman. “Same thing we were emitting in 1970. And look how much more electricity we’re using, and look how many more transportation and miles we’re driving. We’ve expanded the economy 30 times over, nearly, and core CO2 has stayed flat.”
Few industries have come as far in such a short space of time as the chemical sector has. It is a global leader, not only in providing jobs and health and the modern products we need, but also in investing in the future. It provides the research and innovation that will solve the challenges of climate change without creating economic collapse.
And that in itself is something special.
As Huntsman concludes, “We should be celebrating this achievement, shouldn’t we?”
You may also like to read: How the Industrial Chemical Sector is Achieving Shock Resistance or Governments are Rethinking Chemical Industry Policy