Trends in technologies for clean production in the chemical industry
The Chemical sector undoubtedly plays a crucial role in the day-to-day wellbeing of citizens on the planet, the importance of which was further realized during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sector converts its raw materials into more than 70,000 different products. These products have a broad range of use, namely, in the food, healthcare, building and construction, consumer goods, agriculture and transportation industries . Contributing directly to more than 1% of the world’s GDP, the sector is the largest industrial consumer of energy worldwide, accounting for 30% of total industrial energy use .
Being a power intensive sector, it is crucial to monitor the greenhouse gas emissions from the sector. Greenhouse gas emissions pose a major threat, as they are the major contributors towards affecting our planet’s environment and weather systems, leading to climate change. Climate change encompasses not only the rising average temperatures (global warming) but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising sea levels, and a range of other impacts . In a recent climate report published by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it has been estimated that our planet is warmer than it has been in 125,000 years. Specifically, CO2 produced by human activities is the largest contributor to global warming. By 2020, its concentration in the atmosphere had risen to 48% above its pre-industrial level (before 1750). 
Figure 1: Split of total CO2 emissions in Europe, 2018
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the key challenges as to why it is hard to abate the CO2 emissions in the chemical sector are due to the high temperature needs for non-conductive materials during steam cracking, high costs incurred to replace capital assets such as steam crackers, and trade considerations.
It is vital to note, however, that the chemical industry produces fewer CO2 emissions in comparison to other industries, such as steel and cement. This is because around half of its energy inputs are used for feedstock (raw materials), which means that a large proportion of the carbon in the energy inputs ends up in the final product rather than being burned or otherwise emitted during the production process.
The role technology will play in reducing carbon emissions
The chemical industry produces hundreds of thousands of different products ranging from polymers and agri-nutrients to pharmaceuticals, coatings, and cosmetics. As mentioned earlier, the chemical sector directly contributes to more than 1% of the world’s GDP and regionally, contributed almost 5% of the Arabian Gulf’s GDP in 2018, amounting to USD 81.6 billion.
The energy intensity of production varies considerably from product to product. It is particularly energy intensive to produce primary chemicals, which account for around two-thirds of the chemical sector’s total energy consumption and the vast majority of its feedstock needs. In some cases, energy, and feedstock account for as much as 90% of total primary chemical production costs, including capital expenditure.
Technology pathways to net-zero emissions should be on the list of all chemical producing companies. Because of the challenges, listed above, on abating CO2 emissions in the chemical sector, they are estimated to be eliminated worldwide only after 2070 under the assumptions of the Sustainable Development Scenario, with residual emissions in 2070 being offset by negative emissions in the power and other energy transformation sectors.
Thanks to material efficiency and technology performance improvements, increased use of bioenergy and electricity-derived hydrogen feedstock and an extensive CCUS roll-out, emissions from the chemicals sector could fall by around 90% from 1.4 GtCO2 in 2019 to 0.2GtCO2 in 2070. However, most technologies needed to achieve deep reductions in the chemicals sector emissions – including CCUS and electrolytic hydrogen using variable renewables – are still at the pre-commercial or small-scale deployment stages of development for most types of chemicals production. It will probably take five to ten years for technological development, cost declines and supply chain scale-ups to reach the point where they can start to be deployed at scale.
Table 1: List of operational/ in development CCU and CCS plants
Emerging technologies to reduce emissions:
As an extensive consumer of energy, the GCC chemical industry realizes the importance of the global goals such as those set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), principally, SDG No.13- Climate Action and SDG No.12 -Responsible Consumption and Production, as well as the Paris Agreement, and the important role it must play in order to address the call for action to fight climate change and to attain the target of net-zero carbon emissions. Industry leaders such as SABIC have already set a target to reduce the intensity of their energy and greenhouse-gas emissions by 25% from 2010 to 2025 . Carbon neutrality has always been a material topic in the agenda of leading chemical companies in the region, and they are keen to invest in and adopt such technologies to play their part in contributing towards clean production. In fact, in 2010, GPIC, a leading joint venture setup and owned by NOGA Holding of Bahrain, SABIC Agri-Nutrients Investment Company of Saudi Arabia, and Petrochemical Industries Company (PIC) of Kuwait, was one of the first companies in the Middle East to commission a Carbon Dioxide Recovery (Carbon Capture and Utilization) project with the specific aim of reducing GHG emissions. However, maintaining momentum on pilot and demonstration projects currently underway, and ensuring that the current COVID-19 crisis does not divert attention from this, will be crucial to achieving long-term emission reductions.
The following section will highlight the emerging technologies being studied and implemented by the regional chemical industry to cont.
- Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS)
CCUS is a set of technologies that capture CO2 emissions at source, preventing them from entering the atmosphere, or else directly from the air. The captured emissions are then transported and either stored deep underground or turned into useful products . CCUS technologies applied to conventional process routes are closest to widespread deployment, the main reasons being the huge costs that will incur to replace the existing assets such as the steam cracker units, but also due to the limitations of other technologies which are still in early stages of development.
However, further development efforts are still needed to improve the operational performance and lower the costs of CCUS units. The Middle East also has enormous potential for this technology due to demand for CO2EOR, a concentration of expertise in managing fluids in the subsurface and very well characterised basins as a consequence of oil exploration and production . Table 1 highlights the list of CCU/CCS plants that are currently operational or in development in the GCC region.
2- Hydrogen and Renewable Energy
The role of hydrogen in energy transition is increasingly being seen as a necessity and poses a global challenge as the world is starting to transition to a cleaner and more sustainable energy system. To decarbonize the world, hydrogen can play a powerful role in enabling the transition as it offers clean, sustainable, and flexible options for overcoming multiple obstacles that stand in the way of a resilient, low-carbon economy. Couple this with its abundant supply of natural gas, renewable energy, low cost of capital, existing industrial capacity, as well as geographical proximity to growth markets, the GCC region can emerge as a world-leader in the clean energy transition. The pilot project in the shipment of blue ammonia from Saudi Arabia to Japan is a great example of the potential that hydrogen has, to disrupt the energy market. It also showcases the importance of collaboration between the value chain partners in order to achieve a circular carbon economy. Table 1.2 highlights promising hydrogen and renewable energy projects commenced by the GCC chemical industry (in collaboration with international partners)
Table 1.2: Promising hydrogen and renewable energy projects commenced by the GCC chemical industry (in collaboration with international partners)
Table 1.3: Technologies at early stages of development
- Technologies in the early stages of development
Table 1.3 represents technologies which are still at early stages of development including Direct Electrification, Chemical recycling, Bioenergy, and Feedstock substitution to reduce carbon emissions.
Without a doubt, there is a need for the uptake of negative emission technologies that will either reduce or trap carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere, rather used for manufacturing more value adding products and ultimately help foster a sustainable future to keep our planet habitable for the future generations. By majorly being oil & gas-based economies and with the abundance of natural resources, GCC countries have the potential of playing a crucial role in the drive towards this change. Collaboration between value chain partners will be crucial to realize the carbon reduction ambition. Policy makers also have a crucial role to play to support successful business cases and to accelerate deployment of carbon capture technologies in power generation through various approaches, such as :
- Capital support, including grants and provisions from government or state-owned enterprises
- Public procurement, where the government is involved directly or indirectly in the project, including through contracts to purchase power from CCUS-equipped plants. This approach may be particularly relevant in the GCC countries due to the prevalence of state-owned energy utilities
- Regulatory standards and obligations, such as a regulated asset base model where costs are passed on to consumers or tradable carbon capture certificates associated with a CO2 storage obligation. In the case of tradable certificates, the government would issue them to project operators based on the amount of CO2 stored, while other parties (emitters) would be obliged to purchase them
- Operational subsidies, such as contract for difference mechanisms that can cover the cost differential between the higher generation costs and the market price
The first international carbon capture, utilization, and storage conference (iCCUS), which was held in Riyadh in 2020, is a great demonstration of international and regional energy leaders and policy makers coming together to discuss high impact solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. To conclude, a major factor that will influence the commercial scale deployment of a lot of these ambitious clean production projects will be the regulatory policies and incentives offered by the government authorities, where the GCC region currently lags regions such as the EU.
 2020. Energy Technology Perspective. IEA, pp.184- 198.