Europe at night from space, city lights, elements from NASA

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| von Ansgar Kretschmer, Editor

The year 2050 may seem a long way away. But that is only two investment cycles away for an industry that thinks in decades – or the day after tomorrow in practical terms. Moreover, the chemical industry occupies a key position in today’s world: It has connections with every other industry and supplies raw materials and specialist materials for all conceivable products, ranging from building materials via fuels, all the way to food additives and drugs. Highly dependent upon future developments in chemistry, the industry nevertheless has a crucial controlling influence in its capacity as molecule manager.

In order to prepare for the future, in October 2017 Cefic consulted more than 300 stakeholders from academia, government, and think tanks. These stakeholders from a range of disciplines held discussions about megatrends, alternative raw materials, circular economy, climate change, and the European energy mix. Based on those discussions, the Council made a series of assumptions and challenged hundreds of experts from around the world to further discussions. These culminated in a report of the present situation of the chemical industry, in Europe also in the context of global competition, and paint a picture of the future.

And How Will Europe Look in 2050?

Houses and apartments are CO2 neutral. Autonomous vehicles and car sharing are normal. Fuel cells or alternative fuels have replaced diesel fuel and kerosene in freight transport. Renewable and other low-emission energy sources have replaced some two thirds of fossil fuels. Europe is no longer a net CO2 emitter.

Data have replaced oil as the world’s most valuable raw material. Data-mining, artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance, and data-based process management will transform industry. Blockchain technology will introduce radical transparency and track the path of a molecule along the value chain all the way to recycling.

Almost everything is developed in such a way that it can be recycled, and even exhaust gases serve as valuable feedstock in a totally circular economy. Europe will be the world leader in sustainable technologies. Pie in the sky? Yes, but pie you can eat. The report describes each of these visions on its own as “highly plausible and highly desirable” and even more plausible and even more desirable as part of a coherent system.

Sustainability Signals from Chemistry

The authors of the study do not believe that the struggle against nationalism and protectionism will be over by 2050. Competition between different regions of the world will intensify correspondingly. The authors see the best chance for Europe’s technological market leadership in the principle “quality rather than quantity”. This also includes development and early implementation of technologies to offset the effects of the climate crisis. A sustainable circular economy is an essential prerequisite.

Here it is up to the chemical industry in Europe to provide the necessary impetus: Digitisation and transparency are the tools for efficient production. Development and further refinement of disruptive technologies such as hydrogen generation, fuel cells, and artificial photosynthesis, and also CO2 fixation and utilisation are the goal. These methods are already under development, and some are on the verge of industrial scale implementation.

A climate-neutral circular economy by the year 2050 is an ambitious goal and a „daunting responsibility” for the chemical industry at the heart thereof. Because none of this will be possible without political and social support. The study therefore appeals to politicians to adopt the goals of the United Nations for sustainable development (UN Sustainable Development Goals) as a guideline. However, to do this will require an “unprecedented mobilisation of investment funds and of society and every sector of the European economy”. Because the life of each individual person will be changed, it is up to each individual person to participate in the change as it occurs.

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