The chemical industry is the fourth largest industry in the European Union (EU), and the second largest producer in the world regarding chemical sales (CEFIC, 2022; EC, 2020a). It is highly concentrated in eight countries: Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria (Figure 10) (Eurostat, 2023). However, the sector has been shrinking and by 2030 it is expected that the EU becomes drops from the second largest chemical producer to the third largest chemical producer in the world (CEFIC, 2022; EC, 2020a).

Figure 1, Overview of the EU chemical sector, own image.

Within the chemical sector, the top largest processes in terms of energy use are steam cracking, hydrogen, aromatics, ammonia/urea, and ethyl benzene production. The largest amount of GHG emissions are released during the production of ammonia/urea, steam cracking, hydrogen, nitric acid and chlorine (Boulamanti and Moya, 2017).

The chemical industry faces environmental challenges including high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, high energy costs and dependence on other countries (Figure 11). The chemical industry is the third largest GHG emitter in the EU and 60 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) were emitted in 2020 (EEA, 2022). Several actions, including investments and other types of support, have been taken to improve the sustainability and resilience of the sector, covering a toxic-free environment, ending pollution, climate neutrality, circularity, and digitalization (EC, 2023a; 2020). Additionally, there are also various policies and strategies that have been implemented for the same cause, including the European Green Deal (EC, 2015); the Circular Economy Action Plan (EC, 2020b), the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment (EC, 2020a); the safe and sustainable-by-design framework (EC, 2020a); Transition Pathway For The Chemical Industry (EC, 2023a); and the global agreement to end plastic pollution started during the United Nations Environmental Assembly in 2022 (UNEA, 2022).

GHG emissions are now decoupled from production growth, and decreased by 54% from 1990 to 2019, mostly due to a reduction in N2O emissions (CEFIC, 2022). More attention has been given to plastics worldwide due its poor management leading to plastic and microplastics debris ending up on rivers and marine ecosystems and because of its high GHG emissions (Rosenboom et al., 2022). Recycled plastic represented 10% of the total plastic production in the EU, which amounted to 57.2 Mt in 2021. This is 20% more than 2020, and five times more than the amount of bio-based plastics produced in 2021 (PlasticsEurope, 2022).

The sustainability impacts of the chemical sector are assessed applying Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodologies (EC, 2019; TFS, 2022). However, specifically for bio-based chemicals, LCA results are variable and face some challenges. The sector lacks harmonized methods to measure environmental sustainability and circularity, and most of studies do not explore environmental impacts beyond GHG emissions (Ögmundarson et al., 2020; Rosenboom et al., 2022).

Figure 2, Environmental sustainability in the EU chemical sector, own image


Due to its highly globalized value chain, the EU depends on raw materials and energy from other countries. The COVID pandemic followed by Russian war stressed the highly sensitive dependence of the chemicals sector with the geopolitical context (EC, 2023a). As the largest consumer of natural gas, the chemical sector in the EU is vulnerable to the volatility of prices faced in 2022 due to the war (EC, 2022). Natural gas and electricity represent 36% and 28%, respectively, of the EU chemical sector energy demand (CEFIC, 2022). Differently from the other sectors, gas is not only used as source of thermal energy or electricity, but also as a feedstock for the production of chemicals (Boulamanti and Moya, 2017).


Producing chemicals from biomass adds value to biomass and can also benefit from the strong knowledge and infrastructure from the production of biofuels (EC, 2021a). Two of the main challenges of the EU chemical sector are its high GHG emissions and its dependence on other countries, with fossil energy mixes. Incentivizing the bioeconomy can not only support sustainable development and innovation within the chemical sector but can also lead to GHG mitigation and autonomy. The most used feedstocks in the bio-based chemical sector are currently sugary, starchy and oily crops (Spekreijse et al., 2019), but due to land use issues, the attention has currently shifted to the valorisation of lignocellulosic crops and residues from agriculture and forestry, and of organic waste of different kinds from food, municipal solid waste, sewage, and wastewater (Jong et al., 2020). Lignin, organic wastes and CO2 have great potential to directly replace fossil-based chemicals and to produce novel chemicals with equivalent or similar functionalities.

Figure 3, Overview and opportunities of the EU bio-based chemical sector, own image.

The challenges faced in reaching a large-scale bio-based chemical sector include that biomass should be sustainably sourced and should not cause potential competition with food production (EC, 2018; Rosenboom et al., 2022). Biomass is a limited resource and while the EU already relies on biomass imports (Spekreijse et al., 2019) some bio-based processes are still not as mature as commercial fossil ones and face several technical barriers on a commercial scale (EC, 2021a). The environmental performance of bio-based chemicals depends on a wide range of factors along the life cycle, such as the type of biomass used, the specific conversion process, and the end-of-life treatment (Rosenboom et al., 2022).

As mentioned above, one of the main feedstocks of the bio-based chemical sector are oil-based crops. A significant share of bio-based chemicals is produced using vegetable oils extracted from rapeseed, sunflower, and soy. The chemical compounds derived from natural fats and oils are also known as oleochemicals (Acme Hardesty, 2020). Oleochemicals can support the chemical sector to improve its environmental performance as they are biodegradable and can have a lower toxicity and carbon footprint than fossil-based alternatives. Within the ALIGNED project, we will further examine the environmental sustainability of oleochemicals.


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