The European Green Deal: Interview with Martin Brudermüller
November 17, 2020
As part of its European Green Deal, the European Commission aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union to zero by 2050, making it the first continent to become climate neutral. In an interview, Martin Brudermüller, CEO and CTO of BASF SE and president of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic), explains his views and the role he envisages for the chemical industry.
The EU Green Deal focuses on sustainability and climate protection. Isn’t there a big gap between the Commission’s goals and the chemicals sector?
We fully support the Green Deal and Europe’s ambition to go climate neutral by 2050. It is extremely encouraging that the Commission recognizes that the chemical industry plays an indispensable role in achieving its objectives.
The chemical industry is the cornerstone of a low-carbon future. We deliver innovations that are essential for climate protection. Insulation materials for energy-efficient housing and battery materials for electromobility are just two examples. However, our production processes are very energy intensive and are associated with substantial emissions. We therefore need to transform very deeply.
What transformational activities are you pursuing at BASF and why are they necessary?
We are continuously assessing and improving the sustainability of our product portfolio through Sustainable Solution Steering. In terms of carbon emissions too, we have already done a lot: Since 1990, we halved our greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms while doubling our production. We did this by increasing energy efficiency and making technological improvements to our processes. Such improvements are largely exhausted. We now need fundamentally new technologies. BASF has therefore established its Carbon Management R&D Program to develop new technologies to reduce carbon emissions even further.
Will you be switching to low-emission production and what is your timeframe?
Our research and development includes what are known as base chemicals. These building blocks act as a big lever since they are responsible for 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the chemical industry.
BASF is working hard on new technologies with two core elements – using renewable electricity and using completely new processes, for example to produce clean hydrogen. Although the technological challenges are enormous, we expect to have new technologies ready for implementation from around 2030 onwards.
Climate friendly chemistry will require large amounts of reliable renewable energy at competitive prices. I am therefore worried by the lack of political progress regarding prices and availability, both of which are shaped by regulation. If our technologies are successful and we are to be competitive, we need the right infrastructure. And we need additional levies and surcharges on renewable electricity to be removed. We shouldn’t be slowed down by regulatory stumbling blocks.
We are currently seeing a backlash against plastics. How do you see this against the background of the Green Deal?
As a chemist, I find natural and synthetic plastics a fascinating class of materials – they are crucial for modern life. Nevertheless, it makes me angry to see the impact of plastic litter on the environment.
The New Circular Economy Action plan in the Green Deal will likely focus on options to avoid rather than manage waste. This is part of the solution, but it is not a silver bullet. We also need more education and more investment in waste management to reduce littering. And we need to improve the circularity of the plastic products that benefit society.
What is BASF doing in the area of plastics recycling?
BASF offers several solutions for mechanical and organic recycling with products that improve recyclability or are biodegradable. Above all, we have also developed a chemical recycling solution that is a major advance in increasing plastic recycling. It complements mechanical recycling by dealing with plastic waste that is currently not recycled, and it creates products that fulfil high quality standards such as those needed for food-contact materials.
In simple terms, the plastic waste is converted back into an oil that can be used instead of fossil resources in our production processes. An independently reviewed life cycle analysis has shown that this method has a better environmental profile than waste incineration and fossil-based production. We therefore believe that chemical recycling can contribute to the circular economy and would like to see it benefit from the same support as other recycling technologies.
Another big part of the Green Deal is the Farm-to-Fork Strategy. Isn’t this likely to threaten BASF’s crop protection business?
We fully support sustainable agriculture and the idea of driving bold changes in the European food system. In fact, the Commission’s ambitions and ours are well-aligned: We want to facilitate the transformation of European agriculture through innovation by actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting biodiversity and minimizing the use of natural resources. We are also ensuring that farmers have access to the skills and technologies they need to produce sufficient, safe, nutritious, affordable and sustainable food for all.
Working to achieve these ambitions, however, needs realistic targets that are based on scientific evidence. Progress in this direction needs systematic measurement. It will also be necessary to strike the right balance between the need to develop world-class productive farming systems and the need to preserve biodiversity. Economic viability is also part of the sustainability equation.
Which technologies do you see as crucial for achieving the Green Deal and the Farm-to-Fork strategic objectives?
Innovative seed breeding is needed to develop crops that are resilient to climate change. Innovation in biological and chemical plant protection products with more sustainable profiles is also vital. And digital technology innovations will play a key role in enabling more precise use of plant protection products and natural resources. Together, these innovations can help European agriculture achieve these ambitious targets. But this is only possible if policymaking and regulatory requirements support the necessary levels of investment.
What does BASF expect from politics in terms of the Green Deal?
The Green Deal will involve a huge number of policy measures – the devil will be in the details! We are ready to deploy innovations and drive the transformation in a competitive environment. For this, we will need the right framework.
We need an integrated plan that incentivizes sustainable products and solutions and that combines the technology paths of the industry with the regulatory environment. We are ready to share our experience and contribute to this important and transformational process.