A new report issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA), titled ‘The Future of Petrochemicals’, has found that a sharp increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the petrochemical industry has the potential to negate the decrease in emissions from other sectors. Such an eventuality will have grave consequences for climate change. As per this report, direct GHG emissions from petrochemicals will increase 20 per cent by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2050. The petrochemical industry includes plastic, fertiliser, synthetic rubber and pharmaceutical companies.

Petrochemicals are currently the largest industrial energy consumer and the third-largest industrial emitter of GHG. The main driver of the industry’s growing emissions will be plastics. Globally, approximately 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year and the demand for plastics has outpaced that for all other bulk materials (such as steel, aluminium and cement), and has nearly doubled since 2000.

According to the report, even with the growing efforts to recycle and curb single-use plastics, the increasing plastic consumption in developing countries means that plastic demand and usage will continue to grow. This is exacerbated by the difficulty in finding alternatives to petrochemical products for many applications. Currently, the United States, Europe and other developed countries use up to 20 times as much plastic and up to 10 times as much fertiliser as developing economies on a per-capita basis.

The increase in petrochemicals usage will also be driven by an increase in fertiliser, an inevitable result of population and economic growth in developing countries. Much of fertilisers are produced from natural gas.

Some of the report’s recommendations include investment in RD&D (research, development and demonstration) of sustainable chemical production, effective regulatory actions to reduce carbon emissions, reduce reliance on single-use plastics, improve waste-management practices, and raise consumer awareness about the benefits of recycling.