On Tuesday 7 November, more than 250 participants from the chemical industry, policymakers, politicians, and academics gathered at the historic Spoorwegmuseum for the annual event of Green Chemistry, New Economy (GCNE), the platform aiming for a circular chemistry with innovative technologies, without fossil fuels and without CO2 emissions by 2050.
GCNE chairman Arnold Stokking opened the event with a powerful message: “The Netherlands has a wonderful chemical industry. But it is no longer enough. We need to innovate for our economy and for our children.” These words set the tone for the event, which focused on innovation and cooperation within the sector.
Together with Brightsite, GCNE has provided insight into what is needed for the green transition of chemistry: 11 million tonnes of recycled plastic, 45 million tonnes of biomass and 32 million tonnes of carbon from CO2 to make fossil-free plastic. And another 4.8 million tonnes of hydrogen from water as a fossil-free fuel. Stokking shared key findings from the Brightsite Transition Outlook (BTO) Roadshow, which highlighted the need for the chemical industry to transition to sustainable feedstocks. “We face a monumental task. The road to non-fossil raw materials and energy is complex, but undeniably necessary,” Stokking explained, referring to the findings of BTO 2023. He emphasised the role of regional cooperation and customisation in the transition paths “Everyone wants to. There is no such thing as an angry industry or people thinking: this will pass us by. But we did notice that not everyone is aware how big this is. We do talk about circularity, but we haven’t quite got the hang of it yet,” says Stokking.
GCNE aims for a future with circular chemistry. Crucial to this is the electrification of processes and the elimination of fossil raw materials. With €338 million support from the Growth Fund and an additional €550 million from participants, the BioBased Circular programme is committed to bio-based and recycled plastics and carbon from CO2. This effort could lead to a CO2 reduction of 3.5 to 5.8 million tonnes, economic growth of 1.5 to 3.5 billion euros and the creation of 2,500 to 8,300 jobs. Stokking also reflected on the challenges and opportunities ahead. “The electricity grid is full and we are facing limited availability of bio-based raw materials. These are serious barriers, but not insurmountable ones,” he stressed.
Making wise use of ‘fossil subsidies’
Oil and other fossil resources are now cheap and widely available, while biobased alternatives are more expensive. Stokking warns against abolishing fossil subsidies too soon: “If that happens as proposed, the industry will disappear and it will be the end of the story. A transition involves chaos, but we need to be careful and keep our heads cool.”
Start-ups in green chemistry often struggle with funding and experience, finding it difficult to grow. The Green Chemistry Accelerator programme, an initiative of GCNE together with Invest-NL and ROMs, helps them set up pilot plants and enter the market. Last year, five start-ups were given this opportunity, and this year another five new participants have been selected. Day chairman Simone van Trier noted: “These gamechangers are the energy, hope and confidence in the future that together we are going to make it and really work on that circular process industry.” Green Chemistry, New Economy aims to support at least 15 gamechangers and build 10 new value chains or circles in the coming years with the BioBased Circular programme.
According to sector representatives, a clear long-term government policy is crucial. Erwin Nijsse, Director-General of EZK, stressed: “We are on our way, but not yet where we need to be. A lot has been invested in climate and sustainability, but we have overlooked circularity. We need to think about boosting the new economy and build markets in which companies can accomplish the transition.” He challenged the congress participants to formulate firm ambitions and take steps together with the various ministries in the coming years.
The programme ended with a lively discussion held on accelerating the greening of the Dutch chemical sector. Several political parties, including the VVD, GroenLinks-PvdA, BBB, D66 and the CDA, put forward a series of proposals from their election manifestos. These proposals included taxing the use of fossil fuels, legislating the use of recycled plastic and reviewing prohibitive regulations.