New data sets have led the Renewable Carbon Initiative to suggest that products derived from crude oil and natural gas have much higher carbon footprints than previously thought, with those for commodity plastics rising by around 30% and fossil naphtha’s footprint almost doubling.

Founded in September 2020, the Initiative consists of over 60 companies from across the chemical value chain. Its purpose is to support and drive the transition away from fossil carbon and into renewable carbon sourced from biomass, direct CO2 utilization, or recycling for all organic chemicals and materials.

In its view, life cycle assessments do not currently examine the potential environmental impacts of crude oil to the same extent as products made from biomass, Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU), or recycling. More specifically, LCAs for fossil materials are thought to rely on standard values that do not acknowledge such factors as regional differences or, in certain contexts, a lack of granularity or transparency.

The Swiss ecoinvent database – upon which many LCAs conducted in Europe are based – has received two new updates to include new data on the supply of crude oil and natural gas, like unintended methane emissions from extraction and processing.

Basing its revisions on the global supply situation in 2019, version 3.9 expands on production, long-distance transport, and regional distribution in the natural gas and crude petroleum oil supply chains. It is now said to cover 90% of the global production of crude oil and almost 80% of natural gas, regional consumption mixes for crude petroleum oil in North America and Europe, and new or updated natural gas supply to 44 countries.

Version 3.10 seeks to enhance the data representation for ‘essential chemical precursors and their derivatives’ in the Chemicals sector. This includes ethylene oxide and ethylene glycol; short-chain alkenes (ethylene, propylene, butene, and butadiene); and monocyclic aromatics (benzene, toluene, and xylenes [p-, o-, mixed]). It also updates technological and geographical coverage expansion for ethylene, propylene, hydrogen, and methanol – introducing data for Europe, China, and the United States.

ecoinvent also worked with IFEU and Plastics Europe to feature an improved level of disaggregation for steam cracking and PE, PP, PVC, and PET production.

The revisions have indicated an increase in carbon footprint for various substances, specifying a figure of 26% for PET, 34% for PE, and 30% for PP. With these figures on hand, it is hoped that life cycle assessments will more accurately capture the effects of crude oil and fossil raw materials.

Going forward, the Initiative expects many packaging companies to recalculate the carbon footprints of their products in line with the updated data. It predicts that the results will increase the difference in the carbon footprints of fossil and non-fossil plastics; for instance, the production of bio-based plastics was previously thought to have a 20-30% lower carbon footprint than its fossil-based equivalent, but the figure is anticipated to reach 40-50% upon re-examination.

In turn, the Initiative hopes that European policy will be developed in favour of renewable carbon, bio-based products, and CO2-based or recycled packaging. This could include the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation or the European Commission’s Transition Pathway for the chemical industry.

“The defossilization of the chemical industry is more important for climate protection than previously thought,” says Michael Carus, executive manager of RCI. “The importance of bio-based and CO2-based carbon has been underestimated, because data for crude oil and natural gas has been systematically embellished.

“Now the first steps have been taken to recognize the true impact of petroleum use. Politicians therefore have another reason to support the chemical industry’s transition away from fossil carbon much more strongly.”

The Renewable Carbon Initiative plans to commission a project to investigate the differences in, and implications of, the new updates, as well as compare them to other LCA databases like GaBi and CarbonMinds.

In a related conversation, Packaging Europe recently spoke to Lifecycles director and founder Tim Grant. He noted the advancements in data availability when it comes to life cycle assessments, as well as an increasing focus on packaging function alongside waste and recycling – and a growing need to standardize their parameters.

Additionally, Hasso von Pogrell, managing director of European Bioplastics, shared his stance on the current landscape for bioplastics. He argued that a transition into bioplastics is an important step in meeting the targets of the European Green Deal and calls for legislation to incentivize an uptake in such materials – although he adds that the current market share of bioplastics is still too low to replace fossil-based plastics completely.

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