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“We have created climate change collectively, and we need to address it collectively”

How does climate change affect us – personally, as companies and as society? And what can we do to mitigate it? These were questions we discussed with Martin Brudermüller and Youba Sokona, Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and member of BASF’s Stakeholder Advisory Council. The IPCC is an institution of the United Nations. In August, it published its recent report on the current state of climate research, in which globally recognized scientists summarize their findings.

Have you experienced climate change in your personal life so far?

Youba Sokona: I grew up in Mali. In my childhood, we still had to heat our house during the cold season, corresponding to winter in the temperate climate zones, and wear warm clothes. Today, nobody needs heating in Mali anymore. The clothes I used to wear during winter are completely forgotten. When I was at college in Timbuktu, we used to see a thin layer of ice covering the sand – that has not happened again ever since. In less than 40 years, we have witnessed arid and dry areas growing all over the Sahel zone. Africans don’t need scientific studies to prove that climate change is real, we see it happening directly at our front door. 

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The Rhine is the lifeline for BASF's headquarters in Ludwigshafen. In 2018, extremely low water posed major challenges for BASF logistics. Photo: BASF

Martin Brudermüller: For me, this is also a topic close to my heart on a personal level: I have four children and it is important for me to ensure a good future and livable planet for my children. In my professional life, I have witnessed several instances of climate change just in the last few years: The low water of the river Rhine in 2018 has caused us to slow down our production because we could not ship enough raw material in and finished products out of the site. This alone cost BASF 250 million Euro that year. And just a few weeks ago we had to suspend production at our Geismar site when Louisiana was hit by Hurricane Ida. It is absolutely clear that the transformation toward climate neutrality is a must. For BASF, we have put climate protection at the top of the agenda and have set ourselves ambitious goals: By 2030, we aim to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% compared to 2018, and we are aiming for net zero emissions by 2050. 

Are the examples you both just mentioned effects of climate change or some natural phenomenon?

Sokona: A few decades ago, we could not yet confidently attribute some of the extreme weather events to climate change. This has changed, as the scientific data recently released in our Sixth IPCC Climate Assessment Report shows. There will be even more such weather events in the future, unless we tackle climate change vigorously now. We have created climate change collectively, and we need to address it collectively.

Brudermüller: I have talked to many experts on climate. Since a few years, they can calculate climate change more precisely with the help of supercomputers, providing evidence that it is happening faster and more severe than we thought before.

What are the concrete steps we need to take?

Sokona: We won’t be able to solve the issues around climate change within a month, a year or even ten years. We need patience, endurance, and commitment to protect the wellbeing of all people on this planet. Covid 19 has shown that we can change our behaviors if we are willing to do so. Our actions matter. During Covid, we have learned tremendous lessons about our wasteful behaviors. While we had to stay at home, none of us has worn more than one third of the clothes we own. Companies must change as well, moving away from systems which have a programmed end of life for their products. Instead, we must further develop the technological options for continued recycling. These options are not in high demand yet, but demand can be created.

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Youba Sokona, Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and member of BASF’s Stakeholder Advisory Council

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Martin Brudermüller, Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of BASF SE

What should chemical companies do?

Brudermüller: One thing is certain; it won’t work without us. The chemical industry provides the innovations needed for a sustainable future. Just think of battery materials and catalysts for smart mobility, insulation materials in the construction sector, or our solutions for a sustainable agriculture. Climate targets must now be translated into bold execution of concrete measures. The 2020s are the key decade to start the transformation with entrepreneurial courage. BASF wants to drive the transformation of the chemical industry. We have launched a series of pilot projects to test new technologies and aim to make the first large plants climate-neutral by 2030. However, these new technologies need massive amounts of renewable energy at competitive prices. Therefore, we are investing into a subsidy-free offshore wind farm in the Dutch North Sea with our partner Vattenfall and plan another such project with the German company RWE. To be successful, we need support from policy makers to provide an enabling framework. 

What is your advice for an industrial company like BASF to make such a huge transformation a success?

Sokona: You need to become a climate champion by addressing four key issues. First: Have a strong leadership with a clear vision. Second: Translate this leadership into concrete, actionable plans. Third: Bring everyone to the table by instilling a culture of sustainability for all employees. Once everyone is convinced that sustainability is key for the success of the company, people will act accordingly and accept this as part of their responsibility. And lastly, you need to solve the difficult task of addressing both your immediate needs while at the same time investing in the long-term issues. After all, it can be very easy to say: I am only in this job for a few more years, the long-term issues will be the problems of my successor.

Brudermüller (laughing): Such concrete advice is the reason why I value the discussion so much with experts like you, Youba, in our Stakeholder Advisory Council. Let me add to that: To be successful, we don’t only need climate champions in the industry, but also in politics, among our customers, and society. Instead of a political race about the most ambitious climate targets, we need a race for concrete actions that contribute to tackling climate change. We also need a regulatory framework that supports us on our journey. Our customers need to be willing to pay a premium for climate-neutral products. And we need to stop polarizing and start listening to and collaborating with each other. We at BASF are committed to contribute our share. I invite everybody to work with us!