Smart solutions to climate challenges are already being used in this region
In 1972, the UN decided to dedicate one day a year to environmental protection. Since then, people from across the globe gather in June every year for a collaborative environmental campaign.
Fast forward 40 years and the world is now a very different place with a range of pressing environmental challenges. Today, our planet is home to 7 billion people and counting, with increasingly scarce resources available to feed, clothe and house its population.
The theme for this year’s World Environment Day, on June 5, was islands and the impact of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly states that global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions can lead to unprecedented negative consequences to life on this planet.
The need for global campaigns to save and protect our environment, therefore, has never been more critical. Here in the Arabian Gulf, entire industries are increasingly focusing on developing operations that are not only safe but also sustainable. An ideal example is the GCC petrochemicals industry.
Over the last four decades, we have emerged as a $97.4 billion (Dh358bn) industry, creating 139,000 direct jobs and 416,000 indirect job opportunities. Petrochemical products like fertilisers and plastic are crucial elements in feeding, clothing, housing and transporting millions of people in the Gulf and the rest of the world.
While chemical companies are often seen as polluters, the reality is that chemical producers, especially in the GCC, are evolving their operations in safe and sustainable ways. The industry is making significant achievements in response to climate change issues. While providing energy-efficient products, companies have made unprecedented strides in cutting their own carbon emissions. Since 1992, the global chemical industry had reduced greenhouse gas intensity by 23 per cent while increasing its output.
An influential report by the International Council of Chemical Associations concludes that the chemical industry saves two units of greenhouse gas emissions for every unit it emits because the carbon intensity of its products is lower compared to other alternatives.
One crucial element in climate change mitigation is the adoption of technologies that are environmentally friendly and also profitable.
Take for example, carbon capture technologies. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) works on the premise that carbon dioxide can be seized when it is emitted during the manufacturing process and stored underground. Technology is seen as critical for reducing carbon emissions and pilot projects have been initiated the world over.
The GCC petrochemicals industry has taken this premise and used it in an economically viable and innovative way. Carbon capture plants for chemicals producers seize greenhouse gas emissions and reintegrate them into manufacturing process as a raw material for their finished goods. So, instead of storing carbon we utilise it and thus turn CCS technology into CCU (carbon capture and utilisation) technology.
Sabic, for example, is currently building the world’s largest CCU facility. Its Jubail-based affiliate called United Jubail Petrochemical Company plans to capture and purify around 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year from its ethylene plants. Greenhouse gas emissions prevented from being released into the atmosphere will then be supplied for methanol production in other Sabic-owned petrochemical facilities. In addition, 200 tonnes a day of liquid carbon dioxide will be diverted to the food and beverage industry.
Another example is Saudi Arabian Fertilizer Company’s Plant 5 which will be commissioned this year. The facility is set to convert approximately 850,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to produce 1.1 million tonnes of urea. The $533 million development is an ingenious solution to both global warming mitigation and food production.
The CCU technology is being integrated into the very heart of operations of petrochemical facilities in the region. Petrochemical producers in five out of the six GCC states have it in place or in the pipeline for production of products like plastic, fertilisers and lubricants. It is gratifying to note that the region’s major players including Equate in Kuwait, Fertil in Abu Dhabi, QAFAC in Qatar and GPIC in Bahrain and others are investing in CCU and other measures as reported in their sustainability disclosures.
The sustainability journey for the Gulf petrochemical industry has just started and there is still a long way to go. It is impossible to solve issues overnight. However, technologies like CCU will play a key role in climate change solution and our industry will be at the global forefront of its deployment.
Dr Abdulwahab Al Sadoun is the secretary general of Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association