Chemical innovation is at the heart of Europe’s transformation towards a circular and climate-neutral future. Martin Brudermüller, Cefic President discusses how the chemical industry is driving solutions for a more sustainable future.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a global supply crunch in microchips, both the EU and U.S. are now pledging for regional ‘Chips Acts’, intensifying the race for homegrown technology solutions and sovereignty. This example is only one of the latest showing the role of strategic value chains for our society. Whether you look at the supply chains for microchips, battery materials for electric vehicle or medicines, — all of them are heavily relying on chemistry and chemical products. And it is the innovation in these sectors that is core to Europe’s strategic economy and competitiveness. Innovation is the life blood of the chemical industry.
In this Q&A with Cefic President Martin Brudermüller, he describes how the chemical industry is catalyzing solutions and the innovation pathway he’s championing in Europe: not only for current turbulent times but also for the industry’s circular and climate-neutral future.
Q. You have previously said that the success of the EU Green Deal will depend on a raft of new technologies. Which technologies got your attention right now?
A. There are three developments that I’m especially fascinated about, and I believe will have a big impact on the chemical industry in the next decades to come. These are: further digitalization within our industry, circularity, and electrification of chemical processes.
In terms of digitalization, data mining, and analysis, blockchain technology, combined with artificial intelligence, promise better, faster decisions, greater efficiency, and more transparency in our sector — think about predictive toxicology to understand the safety profile of chemicals early on in the research stage, enabling safe by design products!
Coming to circularity, I’ve often said that the chemical industry is uniquely placed to be able to recycle and use it as buildings blocks to make new chemicals and materials. And when we speak about circularity, it’s not just about recycling but also using biomass, using waste, and using CO2 as the feedstock.
Third but maybe even more exciting, is the electrification of chemical processes. It will be key to power our operations in the future. Key chemical processes need a lot of energy, this will not go away. Therefore, to lower our industrial carbon footprint, a lot of innovation has to go into electrifying these processes and thereby enabling the switch to green energy sources. Even if this sounds like simply “plugging in” to the electrical grid, I can assure you it is in many cases a complete reinvention of established technologies and processes.
Q. The transition to a climate-neutral society is both an urgent challenge and an opportunity to build a better future for all. How is the chemical industry answering the call to action?
A. As a father, as a citizen, and also as a CEO who feels responsible about jobs and growth — I want the European Green Deal to work. And I can tell you, the whole chemical industry wants the Green Deal to work. I am also proud to work for the industry whose contribution will be key to deliver on the European Green Deal goals and support EU’s “open strategic autonomy” for key value chains. Chemicals are indispensable for the production of pretty much everything we need to achieve those goals — from innovative construction materials to microchips.
At the same time, our European chemical industry has the ambition to become climate neutral by 2050. To deliver on this promise our sector looks for any opportunity to formulate solutions that can address what we refer to as the “double twin transition” that is ahead of us: (1) the transition towards climate neutrality, (2) realizing a circular economy, (3) implementing the chemicals strategy for sustainability and (4) further digitalizing industry. And we will strive to deliver all these by 2050!
It’s obviously a massive undertaking that requires all our ingenuity to deliver. We know the “what” — the goals, but we still don’t have all the answers as to how to get there. This is why we have started working on this, “the how” element: a Transition Pathway for our sector that will help us navigate this “double twin”’ transition. We will put a lot of effort into making this a reality and we will engage with various stakeholders, from EU institutions to civil society organizations, and incorporate their views into our Transition Pathway.
Q. What kind of support are you seeking exactly from EU policymakers?
A. The chemical industry has always been driven by innovation, passion for new technologies, and entrepreneurial spirit. With this mindset, we support the goals of the Chemicals Strategy.
However, the data shows that we have an enormous challenge ahead of us. For example, the results of a recently published Economic Analysis by Cefic of the impacts of the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability indicate that nearly 30 percent of the chemical industry’s turnover is likely to be impacted by the upcoming legislative changes with significant “ripple effects” across many value chains relying on chemicals. This is why we need an open and collaborative discussion about the Transition Pathway for our sector. It is critical to get this right and turn the Chemicals Strategy into a Growth & Innovation Strategy.
Fundamentally, we’re asking for coherence, clear priorities, and realistic timelines.
EU policy needs to bring investment, regulations, as well as trade instruments, and competition policy together. We need new alliances and a new way of working together to successfully transform.
For example, low-carbon technologies will only become economically feasible with an enabling political framework that incentivizes such changes. The high investments needed for our transformation require legal and planning certainty, funding programs for new technology, and the appropriate infrastructure.
In this regard, COP26 was encouraging to me because we saw some positive movement towards more public-private partnerships and collaboration. There was a strong feeling that we’re all in this together. And the enabling framework and smart regulations we’ve been advocating for, are starting to come together. But of course, we now need action to back up these pledges.
Q. How would you respond to Greta Thunberg’s remarks at COP26 when she said, “Unless we achieve immediate, drastic, unprecedented, annual emission cuts at the source then we’re failing. ‘Small steps in the right direction’, ‘making some progress’ or ‘winning slowly’ equals losing.”
A. We need indeed more drastic action on the deployment of renewables because that would be a game changer for emission reductions. As I pointed out already, our industry needs to electrify with massive amounts of renewable energy to significantly reduce carbon footprints and transition towards climate neutrality.
We are calling for more collaboration between the chemical and renewable energy industries to fill this gap. Chemical companies are already signing long-term power supply contracts with energy suppliers for wind farms, but more is needed — in terms of volumes, as well as infrastructure, and free flow of energy between EU countries.
Q. Europe has a skills gap in chemical science and engineering. Without this talent, how can Europe catalyze the solutions you’ve talked about?
A. We have scientific and educational excellence in Europe — it’s on us as leaders to attract top talents and inspire and empower them. Young chemists will drive our carbon-neutral and sustainable future forward.
I’m personally feeling optimistic about this talent pool because of young people like Christel Koopman, a future Ph.D. student in chemistry and a former trainee at Cefic, who has so eloquently explained her passion for chemistry at our Chemical Convention last October speaking in a digital dialogue about the Future of Chemistry. She aspires to make a positive impact, and chemistry is showing her the way. Take a listen to what Christel has to say and I think you’ll be equally impressed.