The European chemical industry is operating in a climate of uncertainty and fear as it braces itself for more regulations and further demands from the European Union’s policymakers
ONE of the pillars of the European economy – and society’s best chance of creating tomorrow’s low carbon economy – could be in danger of collapse.
INEOS fears Europe’s policymakers want the impossible – and won’t get it without listening to industry.
“It really is becoming a strangling reality to work in Europe as an energy-intensive industry,” said Greet Van Eetvelde, INEOS Manager of Cleantech Initiatives. “The petrochemical industry has helped Europe to grow into one of the most industrialised and wealthy regions in the world. It is a ‘pocket of prosperity’. But with a stroke of the pen, literally, the European Commission is writing its own death sentence.”
The problem is this. Energy-intensive industries are already operating under intense pressure in Europe due to spiralling energy costs compared to America, the Middle East and China.
Burdensome EU initiatives to cut emissions are another increasing area of concern.
Combined, they threaten the very existence of the chemical industry in Europe – and are at odds with the EU’s goal of raising manufacturing’s GDP contribution to 20% by 2020.
“Europe is currently at risk of losing its strong manufacturing base, never mind reaching the 20% manufacturing share of GDP target,” said Dr Peter Botschek, CEFIC’s Director of Energy and Climate Action. “The EU’s policy framework needs to enable, not penalise, efficient manufacturing growth.”
Among the latest reforms to alarm Europe’s chemical industry is the EU’s flagship plan for cutting carbon, the Emissions Trading Scheme which is aimed at big business.
Cefic is the organisation that represents 29,000 large, medium and small chemical companies in Europe.
It said the chemical industry already had a long track record of improving its energy and resource efficiency, all of which had reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 54% since 1990 despite a 70% increase in production.
And it had achieved them through investment and innovation.
“That innovation is crucial and will be indispensable to ensure further improvements and develop breakthrough technologies to create a low carbon and energy efficient European chemical industry,” said its president Kurt Bock. “A thriving chemical industry is an essential part of the solution for the challenge of climate change and a key driver for achieving the EU’s objectives regarding jobs, economic growth and investment.”
Critics say the newly-proposed EU reforms are fundamentally flawed and would ultimately penalise the most efficient companies.
“It just makes no sense,” said Dr Botschek. “Companies that already meet the highest standards cannot do any more. Yet by 2025 even the most efficient undertakings will have to buy allowances for their own growth. The best performers will not be rewarded but will be burdened with undue carbon costs.”
He said those higher carbon costs would inevitably erode margins and hinder the industry’s ability to provide a sufficient return on investments in the long-term.
And there is already evidence of that.
Despite increasing global demand for chemicals, China now holds the top ranking in worldwide chemicals sales, a position once held by Europe.
“It should be acknowledged that investments in production facilities are made for the long-term,” said Dr Botschek. “Energy-intensive industries faced with the promise of a substantial long-term increase in their energy costs will think twice before making these decisions.”
He said the best way for the EU to encourage investment in low-carbon technologies was to create a more competitive environment for industry so it had money to invest.
“Energy-intensive industries cannot pass their carbon costs to consumers without losing market share to their non-EU competitors,” he said.
If the EU continued to act unilaterally, he argued, it would make non-EU countries a more attractive place to invest, lead to job losses and stifle growth in Europe. Furthermore such actions could lead to higher emissions in companies that are less efficient than those within the EU.
The chemical industry is not the only one worried by what’s on the horizon.
European steelmakers are also calling for the Commission to ensure its post-2020 proposals to change the Emissions Trading System do not lead to unfair costs which their global competitors don’t face.
According to a recent study, the proposed reforms could cost the steel industry alone about €34 billion.
INEOS has been lobbying whoever will listen in an attempt to galvanise support against the proposed reforms which it believes will cost its European businesses more than €1 billion.
Energy Intensive does not mean energy inefficient.
“The industry is already highly efficient and changing European laws will not change the laws of physics,” said Greet. “Any further reduction in our emissions and energy use is only possible via relocated production, which does nothing to reduce global emissions. Unfortunately, the European Commission seems to operate in a growingly decoupled way from the industrial reality.”
INEOS wants to work with policymakers during the ordinary legislative procedure to improve the Commission’s carbon leakage proposals.
CEFIC is also working actively with the Alliance of Energy Intensive Industries, which represents over 30,000 European companies and four million jobs, towards a fair and efficient reformed ETS to enable the most efficient companies to grow in Europe.
“Global demand for chemical products is predicted to double by 2030 with much of this growth being in Asia,” said Kurt. “Therefore, the question for policymakers is: ‘What part can EU legislators play in helping to ensure chemical products are continued to be produced in the EU?’”
What does the future hold?
THE European chemical industry is one of the few European manufacturing sectors that is still truly a world leader.
It employs 1.16 million people, exports goods worth €140 billion, and is the foundation for the wider manufacturing sector.
But it is losing ground as it prices itself out of global markets.
Figures show that the chemical industry’s global market share has fallen from 32% in 1993 to 17% in 2014 when it became a net importer of petrochemicals for the first time due to falling exports and increased imports from Asia.
“Worryingly for the future, investment has stagnated in Europe over the past decade, while increasing tenfold in China and almost fourfold in the USA due to the shale gas boom,” said Greet Van Eetvelde, INEOS Manager of Cleantech Initiatives.
CEFIC said Europe must remain competitive if policymakers wanted it to continue being innovative.
Climate change policy leadership in Europe, it said, should not come at the expense of losing industry to another country with less stringent regulations, arguing that it would actually lead to an increase in global carbon emissions and funds for much-needed innovation would dry up.
“European deindustrialisation is not and should never be seen as a viable option on the journey to decarbonisation,” said a spokesman.