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Changing course: Plastics, carbon and the transition to circularity

30 March 2020 Dewey Johnson Robin Waters

Climate change is leading many oil companies to continue to decarbonize their energy portfolios as projections indicate that the 2 degree C for global warming as laid out in the Paris Accord cannot be achieved. The resulting "Energy Transition" results in further exploration of gas and renewables as growth sectors in energy.

Carbon tracking for the full energy value chain is being demanded. Today, financial institutions are advancing to require oil companies to reveal and track their carbon footprints, chemical companies' requirements for carbon tracking are expected to follow in the near future.

Energy companies' efforts to shape a positive discussion around actions that reflect climate change transitions have never been stronger. Unprecedented amounts of operational emissions data, scenario-based stress testing evidence and aggressive action targets have been disclosed. Yet the industry is not aligned on what to disclose, how to measure, or whether cleaner energy diversification would add or destroy value. In the meantime, countries are increasing regulatory focus on oil, gas and power sector-specific measures that will cause even more change in the future.

Increasing climate change concerns are expected to drive a need for a greater understanding of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions for crude oil and chemicals through their value chain. The need to understand unmanaged plastics waste threatens the very "license to operate" for the chemical industry. Significant development is underway in all aspects of plastics waste management, including chemical process recycling technology development, further refinement of mechanical process recycling, reclamation and logistics systems development, improving circularity capability of single use plastics, etc.

The petrochemical industry remains focused on future risks and opportunities as the plastics value chain transitions from a linear to circular infrastructure.

Disruptive forces could potentially reshape the consumption of plastics and in turn disrupt chemical industries and Large Volume plastics are at the nexus of these changes. The petrochemical industry has unique challenges in the transition to circularity. The integrated processes of petchems assets are among the largest and most complicated in the world; this illustrates the advances in the linear model and challenges of changing to a model of circularity.

How will the chemical industry transition from a linear to circular value chain?

Sustainability initiatives in chemicals extends from the need to address end of life management of plastics to multiple examples of the benefits of chemicals, including food usage, clean water, and clean energy.

The transition from a linear (make, use, dispose) to circular economy in which resources are used as long as possible while extracting the maximum value during use and, at the end of each service life, recovered to generate new materials and products will require significant change at an accelerated pace if success is to be achieved.

Many questions remain. What will be the pace of transformation? What and when will inflection points occur? What disruptors will result? How will the industry structure evolve? How might new entrants displace incumbents and what positions in the value chain are the most vulnerable? How will regulations and stakeholder policies evolve? What are the resulting implications to economic models? What insights and actions are needed to address climate neutral initiatives? How will consumer system behavior change? How will stakeholders evolve and how will it impact economies, geopolitics, and efforts to address climate change and pollution?

Chemical recycling technologies are a potential game changer for the plastics industry. However, technology and scale to commercial viability needs to accelerate much faster than current momentum. Support for vast infrastructure improvements, including collection, sorting and recycling requires aggressive government and financial community support on a global scale.

In 2020 IHS Markit will prepare a special study, "Changing Course: Plastics, Carbon and the Transition to Circularity", which will provide a comprehensive understanding of the current regulatory environment, stakeholder policies and industry group/NGO initiatives and how these activities will develop under different scenarios for society's transition to circularity. The study will also provide an understanding how alternative technologies for recycling and recovery, both mechanical and chemical, will develop and fit within an overall macro infrastructure / reverse supply chain designed for circularity. Implications of carbon valuation, and how it might impact future capacity investment decisions will be included along with an assessment of risk from demand loss via demand deselection and replacement of primary supply with post-consumer/ commercial resin and the implications for the petrochemical chain.


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Posted 30 March 2020 by Dewey Johnson, Vice President Global Base Chemicals Insight, IHS Markit and

Robin Waters, Director, Plastics Planning and Analysis, IHS Markit



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