The chemical industry is committed to sustainable consumption. But does this mean that it should switch completely from fossil feedstocks – oil, gas and coal – to renewable resources, as environmentalists often demand? In fact, the industry is already making this switch – whenever and wherever it makes sense. But it does not always make sense, and there are various ways in which the industry can protect the environment.

Renewable raw materials account for around 4% of BASF’s total feedstock. In certain businesses, such as care chemicals (used for personal hygiene and home care and so forth), the figure can be much higher, depending on the market and the level of demand. But, even if the share of renewables were suddenly and dramatically increased, this would not necessarily produce the desired outcomes, because being “bio-based” is not intrinsically sustainable, and sustainable consumption does not involve only replacing fossil with renewable feedstock.

Despite claims to the contrary, renewable feedstock is finite, too, and its production is often associated with challenges such as deforestation, changing land use and marginalization of food production. In short, we are a long way from having a clear picture of these complex interactions.

To take one example, BASF has developed a compostable plastic that can be used to make bags to help collect organic waste and turn it into a valuable resource. But developing a new technology and a smart product is not enough. Compostable plastics also need to be composted. In the absence of local waste-management companies with appropriate systems for collecting and composting the bags, their environmental benefits are limited.

It is true that renewable raw materials are gaining in importance as alternative feedstock, especially in new areas such as the production of enzymes, which reduce energy consumption by acting as bio-catalysts in low-temperature detergents. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, fossil feedstock will remain the dominant raw materials in many areas of the chemical industry.

Efficient use of feedstock is not a modern trend; on the contrary, it is based on long experience in the chemical industry. Although the industry consumes around 10% of the world’s oil output, it does so with great care. Indeed, our experience in getting the most out of every barrel is what has kept us in business for more than a century.

But the industry’s main positive impact on the environment is felt in numerous indirect ways. Insulation materials (which reduce buildings’ heating and cooling needs), wind turbines, and solar-power modules would not exist without contributions from the chemical industry.

The chemical industry helps other sectors produce a vast range of environmentally friendly, everyday products that consumers are increasingly demanding, including shampoos, mobile phones, paper, tennis shoes, clothes, medicines and cars. Over their lifecycle, chemical products made in 2010, for example, will be responsible for a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions equal to 30% of the European Union’s total emissions that year.

Our industry has always been at the forefront of innovation. A century ago, a BASF scientist helped to develop an industrial process to make ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen. This formed the basis for the industrial production of nitrogen fertilizers, which allow us to produce enough food for the world’s ever-increasing population.

Today, our concerns are more environmental. For example, we believe that converting oil into special plastics for lighter-weight vehicles, thereby lowering fuel consumption, would make more sense than burning it as gasoline or diesel. But, in developing such innovative approaches to emissions reductions, we must always specify the optimal feedstock for each product, and find the right balance between fossil feedstock and renewable resources.

The move towards sustainable consumption must be realistic. For the chemical industry, sustainability means much more than only minimizing the impact on the environment. It must also be economically viable and socially accepted.

Likewise, sustainability goals will not be met by focusing entirely on rich, industrialized countries. Achieving sustainable consumption requires global dialogue all along the value chain. It means learning from, and exchanging ideas with, all stakeholders, be they governments, trade associations or civil-society organizations.

Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate

Author: Michael Heinz is a member of the board of executive directors of BASF SE

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