The ECRN conference “Building the Sustainable Chemical Industry of Tomorrow: Regional Response to common European Challenges” looked at challenges and opportunities for the green transition of the EU chemical industry and the role that regions will play in it. In the wake of the publication of the EU chemical strategy, the ECRN organized this conference whit the ambition to discuss key drivers shaping the future of chemicals: hydrogen, bio-based chemical production, sustainable chemicals & chemical recycling.
“ECRN was born and has since ever the mission to sustain and support healty and safe development of EU chemical sector. Once again, after the 2009 EU Strategy to support the Chemical industry, the European Union recognise chemistry as one of the fundamental pillar of its development. This Covid pandemic showed us how important is and will be a sustainable growth allowing our and next generations to keep the welfare and wellbeing we have achieved but reduce the impact on and the exploitation of natural resources.”
Fabrizio Sala, ECRN president & Vice-President of Lombardy Region
European regions have a crucial role in the development of strategies and policies that boost growth, sustainability and employment in the chemical sector and scale up sustainable and innovative solutions. By presenting key messages from the CoR report on the EU industrial strategy, Ms. Jeannette Baljeu, Regional Minister for Europe and International Affairs of South-Holland, highlighted the need for smart specialization strategies and place-based approach to make the EU industry more competitive. It is especially through regional networks and interregional cooperation that we can build sustainable industrial value chains and make Europe climate-neutral and competitive.
FUEL OF THE FUTURE: THE ROLE OF HYDROGEN FOR A CARBON FREE EUROPE
This session looked at the role of hydrogen in the chemical industry’s energy transition, discussing the steps needed to build the European hydrogen economy that will make Europe a leader in hydrogen production, with EU regions leading the way.
Ms. Nyitrai, Member of Cabinet of Commissioner Kadri Simson, introduced the EU hydrogen strategy and the need for new solutions to reach Europe’s climate neutrality by 2050. She underlined how hydrogen is essential to deliver the EU Green Deal, to further integrate energy systems and to relaunch EU economic activities after the Covid pandemic by generating industrial leadership and new employment opportunities.
From a European perspective to local examples, Dr. Ude, State Secretary of Saxony-Anhalt and Mr. Rijzebol, Regional Minister of Groningen, presented regional initiatives to create European hydrogen valleys. Thanks to the abbundance of renewable energy, the right infrastructure and the presence of important chemical clusters, both Saxony Anhalt and Northern Netherlands have the potential to become international model for a successful industrial energy transition.
Another important hotspot for the chemical industry renewable energy revolution is the Trilateral area, a cross-border cooperation between the Netherlands, Flanders and North Rhine-Westphalia started in 2017. Mr. Van Doorn, program manager for the Hydrogen Trilateral Strategy, underlined how regional collaborations are essential to scale up hydrogen production and to ensure production sites are connected with consumers. If Europe wants to develop a real hydrogen market, it will need to start looking at consumption first and build the right infrastructure.
Finally, Mr. Chatzimarkakis, Secretary General of Hydrogen Europe, provided an overview on the steps needed to build a successful European hydrogen economy. The recently established EU Clean Hydrogen Alliance will be the main instrument to implement EU hydrogen strategy by defining the pipeline of EU investments. With estimated 430bn euros needed to kick start the EU hydrogen economy, chemical regions will have a fundamental role in it, as the first hydrogen consumers.
REGIONAL SOLUTIONS TO UPSCALE THE BIO-BASED CHEMICAL PRODUCTION IN EUROPE
This session was focused on the potential of a sustainable bio-based economy in Europe to unlock new opportunities in the EU chemical sector. The representative of the European Committee of the Regions, Member of the Council of the Province of Drenthe and rapporteur for “New circular economy Action Plan”, Mr. Tjisse Stelpstra together with Mr. Hans-Christian Eberl from the European Commission DG RTD, Mr. Dirk Carrez from Bio-based Industries Consortium and Ms. Lia Voermans Director of Chamelot Circular Hub from Province of Limburg discussed how the European chemical industry could benefit from a European bio-based economy and how to upscale bio-based chemical production in the EU.
During the discussion, panelists strongly underline the importance of the connection of bio-based industries with CO2 emission reduction targets what requires stable EU legislation and concrete indicators that can encourage companies to invest inside the EU and do not move the production outside. The same is needed to support interregional and cross-border waste flows that should not be treated as waste any more but as resources for further production.
In the whole process of transition from primary raw materials to bio-based and secondary raw materials, we cannot forget of citizens’ awareness and engagement that can be achieved by easy to recognize certificates and product labelling.
The European Commission also highlighted their efforts to support the circular economy concept through the Horizon 2020 calls. In the coming Horizon Europe, this approach will be continued.
SUSTAINABLE CHEMICALS & CLOSING THE LOOP: INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO HALT PLASTIC WASTE
In the EU, the potential for recycling plastic waste remains largely unexploited. Only 15% of EU-collected plastic waste finds its way back into the EU plastic market. Chemical recycling can treat waste that can’t be recycled mechanically, and therefore plays an important role in the mix of solutions to tackle the problem of plastic waste. This session looked at innovative solutions and technologies to tackle plastic waste in Europe.
Ms. Elena Montani from the European Commission DG ENV presented the recently unveiled EU’s chemicals strategy for sustainability towards a toxic-free environment. She stressed the fact that while talking about the circular economy and energy transition, we cannot forget about hazardous chemicals that affect our daily life. The tackle of this issue is one of the main pillars of the new strategy.
To achieve the goals presented in the new EU strategy and boost the innovations in the chemical sector, we need to undertake several actions that were presented by Mr. Jürgen Tiedje, Head of Unit, Sustainable Industry Systems, DG RTD, European Commission. In the nearest future, the focus will be put on circularity, waste reduction, recycling, and a concept of sustainable by design. That is why the European Commission is planning to support so-called circularity hubs.
A clear overview on the advantages of chemical recycling and applied technologies was presented from Mr. Tomasz Klepka, Professor at Lublin University of Technology. Followed by practical example of chemical recycling technology was presented by Mr. Josse Kunst, Director of Chemical Recycling in Cure Technology. They mostly focus on polyester recycling but what is crucial for any type of recycling is the design process. At this point, the products should be designed in a way to be easy to recycle later on. They also develop the new technology of chemical recycling, so they strongly welcome EC’s plans to support research and technology.
The last speaker in this session was Mr. Henk Pool, Innovation Manager from The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic). He underlined the importance of the chemical recycling as the 85% of plastics is currently incinerated or landfilled. To increase the level of recycled plastic we need to establish totally new partnerships and value chains that engaged partners from diffrent sectors that can provide new technologies and solutions to halt plastic waste.
The panellists supported the idea of circularity hubs as places that specialize in one particular topic. That may protect Europe from internal competition and avoid investing money in the same technologies in different places. However, such investments require clear and simple as possible EU legislation.
The conference was summarized by Mr. Ruud Burlet, Vice President of ECRN & Regional Minister of Limburg who emphasized that this conference presented the voice of chemical regions to common European challenges we are facing nowadays. The event was organized by the European Chemical Regions Network, the network that tries to find regional solutions to these challenges and deliver them to the EU institutions and other stakeholders as well and that is the approach that lets us achieve the European Green Deal goals.