Challenge → Energy & Climate

Towards a carbon-smart economy

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Companies from the chemical, plastics and life sciences industry are fully engaged in contributing to the transition towards a smart carbon society

Carbon is everywhere. Coupled with two oxygen atoms it forms CO2. It is in the atmosphere and in sparkling water. Rocks and minerals such as limestone, dolomite, plaster and marble are made of carbon. All living things consist of carbon, along with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and some other elements.

Carbon dioxide is a chemical compound that consists of two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom.

Crucial carbon

In the remains of prehistoric organic material, compressed for centuries in the earth’s crust, carbon chains form the backbone of the fossil fuels that have made the industrial revolution and the subsequent population growth with rising living standards possible. These fossil fuels provide energy during combustion.

CO2 is then released, as a result of which the amount of CO2 in the air has risen slowly but surely: from 295 ppm (parts per million) in 1900 to 315 ppm in 1960 to 410 ppm in 2019, the highest concentration in 800,000 years. It is only 0.03% of the atmosphere, but due to the greenhouse effect, it has major consequences for the climate.


The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere only amounts 0.03%, but due to the greenhouse effect, it has major consequences for the climate.

Carbon is in the air, in our body, in gasoline, in soft drinks and in numerous other products we use daily. This element is essential to life. So a ‘low-carbon’ economy can be misunderstood. Carbon is crucial for our society and quality of life – there is just too much of it in the wrong place: like CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.

A low carbon economy is a misunderstanding. Carbon is essential to life. We need to innovate for a smart carbon society.

Discover the vision of Els Brouwers, Head of Energy, Climate & Economy at essenscia

Smart carbon

The question now is how we can use and manage carbon in a smart manner so that fossil CO2 no longer gets into the atmosphere and causes climate change. By using the available stocks wisely, treating them as a sustainable raw material and even ensuring that we can remove CO2 from the air. In the coming decades, chemistry will play a crucial role in creating new carbon sources, for fuels and plastics for example, from climate-neutral sources, such as the atmosphere, biomass or recycled material.

It is not impossible. We can learn from plants. Plants have been performing photosynthesis for over 400 million years. Through that process, they synthesize sugars from water and CO2 using the sun’s energy. These sugars are needed for growth and flowering. The residual product of photosynthesis is oxygen. All other life depends on it.

Circular carbon

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INEOS Oxide and bECO2: 10 years of carbon capture and reuse, and 1 million tons of avoided CO2

We can eat those sugars and get the oxygen to burn them for free. Our waste gas is CO2 and plants re-use it again and thus the planetary circle closes. This ancient cycle provides the basis for a carbon-smart, circular economy.

For that, we all will need to innovate : looking for ground-breaking technologies that render greenhouse gases such as CO2 harmless by capturing and storing them (CCS: Carbon Capture & Storage) or reusing them as raw materials in new materials or synthetic fuels (CCU, Carbon Capture & Utilisation).

Climate-neutral energy

No matter how circular we manage the economy, energy supply will have to be the cornerstone. Physical laws are simply impossible to circumvent, so energy will always be needed: for production processes, transport, consumption. Innovations in carbon-smart technologies will also require much more energy. And that energy should be generated and used in a way that is climate neutral, without net greenhouse gas emissions.

An adequate supply of climate-neutral energy poses the real climate challenge of the coming decades.

Sector Initiative

Dow Seneffe generates its own electricity needs

We will need all the available knowledge and experience in business and the academic world to achieve this sustainable end-goal of a carbon-smart society and a climate-friendly industry. So, an adequate supply of climate-neutral energy poses the real climate challenge of the coming decades.

This concerns both climate-neutral energy carriers – such as sustainably generated electricity, but also hydrogen – and climate-neutral energy sources, such as wind, sun or nuclear power. The latest already produce electricity as an energy carrier. A further electrification of production processes will contribute to the sustainable future of industry, along with the further and continued improvement of production processes, so that they continue to be more and more energy-efficient.

Key role for chemistry

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Breakthrough research and innovation for a carbon-smart industry: the Moonshot programme

Many innovation pathways are currently being fully researched, often in collaboration with other companies or universities and research centres. There are no ready-made solutions on the table yet, but the objective is clear. Chemical, plastic and life sciences companies realise they play a key role in the transition to a successful role out of a climate-positive future.

That is not a coincidence. Chemical processes require a lot of energy because they often take place at high temperatures and under high pressure. The chemical industry is therefore one of the largest industrial consumers of energy. To become truly sustainable in the long term, both society and the sector will have to source their energy in a climate neutral way. Especially since renewable energy via solar panels or wind turbines alone cannot meet that current energy demand.

The products and processes that the chemical industry provides are, on the other hand, of fundamental importance. The innovations are indispensable for the optimal production of climate-neutral energy. Products from the sector are designed to generate fewer CO2 emissions and more energy efficiency in homes, transport, agriculture and other industries. For example, with insulating materials for energy-efficient houses, or lightweight materials for cars so they use less fuel.

Do more with less energy

Sector Initiative

Indavers heat network ECLUSE avoids 100.000 ton of CO2 emissions a year

The chemical and life sciences sector has been working for decades on reducing its own energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions. The sector in Belgium is among the world leaders when it comes to producing with efficient use of energy and raw materials.

Since 1990, total production in the sector has tripled, while energy consumption has only increased by 37%. In other words, energy efficiency has increased considerably. In addition, during the last three decades the use of coal and petroleum for energy generation has been phased out, and replaced by electricity (30%) and natural gas (70%).


Since 1990, total production in the sector has tripled, while energy consumption has only increased by 37%. In other words, energy efficiency has increased by 56%.

Renewable energy is also being used more and more, especially where it can be produced stably and on a sufficiently large scale. This is increasingly happening in symbiosis with other industries. The ECLUSE steam network in the chemical cluster in the port of Antwerp, for example, supplies green energy generated in a waste processing plant to drive the production processes in neighbouring chemical companies.

That is precisely the basis for the success of the chemical sector in our country: the exchange not only of energy, but also of materials and molecules, between companies themselves. What is a waste stream in the production process of one company can be usefully used as raw material by another company. Also within the same company, heat is exchanged as much as possible between different installations by recovering residual heat and using combined heat and power. This allows energy to be used to best advantage.

High temperature heat is the greatest energy requirement of the sector. Today, this requirement is mainly met with natural gas because it has a high energy density. To reduce the impact of this requirement on the climate, its replacement with biomass or biogas could be an option. However its supply is not inexhaustible, nor is it widely available without ecological side effects such as land use issues.

... and with fewer greenhouse gases

Sector Initiative

essenscia coordinates the voluntary energy efficiency agreements

Thanks to innovative process technologies, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide can be converted into gases with less or no impact on climate. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions per ton produced in the Belgian chemical and life sciences have been reduced by 80%. A clear decoupling has therefore been achieved between production on the one hand and energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions on the other.

Despite all the progress made, the goal remains to produce as efficiently as possible with less energy and fewer emissions. This is why all sector companies that consume a lot of energy have agreed with the government to commit to further drive energy efficiency, even though the quick wins have long since been exploited and it is becoming increasingly difficult to do even better.


Greenhouse gas emissions by the Belgian chemical and life sciences sector have been reduced by 80% since 1990 in relation to the production volumes.

Still a long way to go

Our society is far from being climate-neutral, but the chemical and life sciences industries do play a pioneering role for the rest of industry and society as a whole. The challenges are huge and require a coherent approach across all policy areas, underpinned by support from citizens and businesses. Nor will there be one magical solution. Nobody can do this on his own. The climate issue requires sector and cross-border solutions. With innovation as the spearhead.

The chemical sector is at the centre of this and holds some powerful tools. Petroleum is currently mostly used as raw materials for everyday materials and molecules, from lubricants to plastics, from cleaning products to medicines. Fundamental research is under way in this field, in a search for alternative, sustainable raw materials.

Smarter with carbon

The core of a carbon-smart economy will be formed by capturing CO2 and using it as a raw material for basic chemicals, fuels and plastics. Within a circular economy, it is also necessary to deepen the role of bio-based materials and to convert plastics again into a basic raw material for the chemical industry at the end of their usefulness.

Climate-neutral raw materials and energy sources, and new carriers for that energy such as hydrogen, are needed for a sustainable society. The continuous efforts of the chemical and life sciences to further reduce their own climate footprint will continue to play a leading role in this.

In addition to the many scientific and technological challenges, this unprecedented transition also requires a smart economic vision in which the climate approach and the transformation to a climate-neutral energy system is done in a realistic and feasible way for citizens and businesses. In this way, in a globalised economy, there is still room to invest in our country and to innovate in climate solutions that can make a difference worldwide.

Key challenges

  1. Engage further in the transition towards a smart and circular carbon society.
  2. Facilitate competitive and climate neutral energy that allows an energy intensive industry to further improve everyone’s quality of life.
  3. Innovate in highly efficient production processes and circular carbon use such as carbon capture & utilization (CCU).
  4. Make clear that a forward- looking industrial policy should take into account the global dimension of the economy and the climate issue.

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