Biochemicals: stepping into a future without fossils

By Dominik Müller, Senior Manager Sustainability, UPM Biorefining.

Science is crystal clear about it – time is running out and the mercury is still rising. We have 10 years or less to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to hold warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and limit the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change. The chemical sector contributes about five per cent of the current global carbon footprint1 and it is most likely that the industry’s existing and upcoming efforts are falling too short to stay within planetary boundaries and the remaining carbon budget for the chemical sector.

The role of chemicals in sustainable transformation

Industrially produced chemical substances are present in more than 90% of manufactured goods and critical to, for example, the transition of the energy sector; enabling a low-carbon mobility; fostering the sustainable transformation of heavy industries and improving the way we are living. Thus, the sector plays a pivotal role in accelerating a sustainable transformation. It is providing innovative solutions to enable downstream partners to work towards a circular and net zero economy.

We are not alone in this – achieving a net zero circular economy needs a holistic approach with value chain collaboration

All relevant future projections for the chemical sector show that a holistic approach is needed to achieve a net zero and circular economy. Together with innovative industry solutions, which enable the downstream partners to reach their net zero targets, this will fulfil the expectations of consumers for sustainable products. Frontrunner brands together with key players from the chemical sector are already paving the way towards such critical value chain collaborations (e.g. some UPM examples: Brenntag, Vaude). However, this can be only implemented on the necessary scale with bold commitments from all value chain actors.

Let’s face the elephant in the room – significant investments are needed to scale up low-carbon and circular technologies

We see lots of ambitious actions by the chemical industry with a strong focus on improving operations and processes.

But let’s face the elephant in the room: the chemical industry inherently relies on carbon molecules as its main building block, with more than 60% of emissions from upstream (mainly fossil-based feedstocks) and downstream (use and end of life of products) activities. So, efforts towards a net zero and circular economy need to focus more extensively on the main levers – around feedstocks and end-of-life.2 To fully defossilize the sector there is a need to find alternative carbon sources, shifting towards more sustainable production and consumption, while developing and scaling up low-carbon solutions and circular technologies.

We need to act faster and bolder – the full potential of alternative feedstocks needs to be unleashed 

Alternative feedstocks are considered as a required cornerstone to foster a net-zero and circular economy. To achieve the chemical sector’s ambitious long-term goal of 0% virgin fossil and net-zero target will require biobased feedstocks alongside recycled materials and in the future, CO2-based feedstocks (CCU). The future availability of sustainable biobased feedstocks needs to be built on criteria around additionality, land use change and biodiversity and thus a limited number of biobased feedstocks will be eligible. 

Various publications anticipate a relevant biobased feedstock share in chemicals of 10-40% in 2050 to ensure a net zero chemical sector. Thus, we need to find totally new ways to look at our feedstocks by using proven sustainable forest-management techniques, actively transforming our forests in mixed, resilient and biodiverse habitats and by adopting new methods of producing biomass in land and marine based systems.

Despite the big chemical actors working extensively to increase their alternative feedstock shares, it’s simply not enough to avoid exceeding the carbon budget and to work towards net zero. We need to act faster and bolder.

The first step towards a future beyond fossils 

UPM Biorefining spearheads UPM’s growth to become a global renewable fuels and chemicals leader, enabling the defossilization of entire value chains. A transformation at this scale is needed to establish an effective response to our planet’s biggest challenge: climate change. Building on sustainable feedstock from forest industry side streams and climate value biomass, we scale novel technologies into a platform of biorefineries addressing the growing market demand for renewable chemicals, materials as well as transport and aviation fuels. 

Since 2015, UPM is operating a biorefinery for the production of advanced biofuels and renewable naphtha in Lappeenranta, Finland. Renewable naphtha is an excellent wood-based feedstock for plastics and other materials. The UPM bio-naphtha is a drop-in solution that works identically to fossil-based naphtha in all chemical industry solutions and can turn entire value chains into more sustainable ones.

The company is further investing 1,180 million Euros to build the world’s first industrial scale biorefinery in Leuna, Germany, to convert sustainably sourced, certified hardwood into next generation biochemicals that will enable the vital shift away from fossil-based to renewable materials across a wide range of industries. Start-up is expected by the end of 2024.



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