IEA (2018), The Future of Petrochemicals, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-petrochemicals, License: CC BY 4.0
About this report
Petrochemical products are everywhere and are integral to modern societies. They include plastics, fertilisers, packaging, clothing, digital devices, medical equipment, detergents, tires and many others. They are also found in many parts of the modern energy system, including solar panels, wind turbine blades, batteries, thermal insulation for buildings, and electric vehicle parts.
The Future of Petrochemicals takes a close look at the consequences of growing demand for these products, and what we can do to accelerate a clean energy transition for the petrochemical industry.
Demand for petrochemicals is surging...
... and will continue to grow
- Plastic packaging for food and other commercial products can be made from a range of petrochemical products, including polyethylene and polystyrene
- Globally, more than half of ammonia is converted to urea, which is in turn mainly used as a fertiliser used to increase crop yields and boost food production
- Synthetic rubber is a major component of tires for cars, trucks and bicycles, and is mainly derived from the petrochemical butadiene
- Many of the laundry detergents and items of clothing in our washing machines are derived from petrochemicals, such as surfactants and polyester fibre
Developing economies lead growth
Petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil demand
And new dynamics in oil and gas are driving global competition
Despite the substantial benefits they provide – including a growing number of applications in various cutting-edge, clean technologies critical to a sustainable energy system – the production, use and disposal of petrochemical-derived products poses a variety of sustainability challenges that urgently need to be addressed.
The Future of Petrochemicals introduces a scenario that outlines an alternative path for the chemical sector that helps achieve several UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Clean Technology Scenario, or CTS, explores opportunities to mitigate air and water pollution, and the water demand associated with primary chemical production, alongside the over-arching goal of reducing CO2 emissions. The assumptions related to pollutants and other aspects of the future energy system are in line with the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario.
Environmental impacts decrease across the board...
... With a dramatic reduction in direct CO2 emissions
But a broad range of efforts are required
When plastic waste finds its way into the ocean, it breaks down into small pieces that are commonly ingested by marine life. As the mass of larger debris – including containers, bottle caps, crates and old fishing gear – continues to degrade over time, the quantity of microplastics could increase significantly. This is an urgent environmental problem garnering much attention around the world.
Although plastic recycling plays a comparatively smaller role when it comes to emission reductions, improved waste management infrastructure – a necessary pre-requisite for the recycling increases in the CTS – lays the groundwork to drastically reduce plastic pollution from today’s unacceptable levels. In the CTS, cumulative ocean-bound plastic waste more than halves relative to the RTS. This excludes the impact of complimentary efforts to remove plastic waste from the oceans.
To achieve a sustainable chemical sector, an interdisciplinary approach is needed throughout the value chain – from primary chemical production to waste management. There is no single or simple solution. In tackling environmental challenges, policies need to maximise co-benefits and ensure sustained impact.
- Directly stimulate investment in RD&D of sustainable chemical production routes
- Establish and extend plant-level benchmarking schemes for energy performance and CO2 emission reductions targets
- Pursue effective regulatory actions to reduce CO2 emissions
- Require industry to meet stringent air quality standards
- Fuel and feedstock prices should reflect actual market value
Use and disposal
- Reduce reliance on single-use plastics other than for essential non-substitutable functions
- Improve waste management practice around the world
- Raise consumer awareness about the multiple benefits of recycling
- Design products with disposal in mind
- Extend producer responsibility to appropriate aspects of the use and disposal of chemical products