July 17, 2020
Five years ago, it was agreed at the
Paris Climate Conference to decrease global warming by two degrees and do
everything possible to stay below 1.5 degrees. This can only be realized if
emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) — the most important greenhouse gas — are
reduced by 45% in 2030 and are entirely phased out by 2050.
Shell says it is ambitious and wants to take a leading position. But how can the company’s ambitions align with a major investment in a new plastics factory in Pennsylvania?
PLASTIC AND THE CLIMATE
The plant, in which Shell is investing six to ten billion dollars, will produce plastic next year based on ethane, a by-product of shale gas. Ethane will be used to make ethylene, a raw material for all kinds of plastics, such as polyethylene, which is widely used for packaging. Plastics’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is a problem about which little is published so far. The recently published report “Plastic & Climate. The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet” fills this gap.
The report, edited by the Center for
International Environmental Law (CIEL), provides greenhouse gas emission
calculations for the whole lifecycle of plastic produced from oil and gas: from
raw material extraction and processing to waste disposal. In particular, the
production and incineration of plastic contribute to the emissions. Therefore,
the report concludes that the plastics industry poses a serious threat to the
achievement of the climate targets.
In 2019, plastic production and
incineration contributed 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases to the
atmosphere. This is as much as 189 coal-fired power stations of 500 megawatts.
Global plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions will reach 1.34 gigatonnes by
2030, equivalent to 295 500 megawatt coal-fired power stations. In 2050, this
could rise to 2.8 gigatonnes (615 coal-fired power stations) or, all years
combined, 56 megatonnes.
The maximum amount of CO2 that can
still be emitted worldwide to meet the climate target is set in ‘the carbon
budget.’ According to the report, the plastics industry will account for 10 to
13% of this limited budget until 2050.
The petrochemical industry invests
massively in new plastic production, especially where cheap shale gas can be
used. This is based on the expectation that 1323 million tonnes of plastic will
be produced in 2050; approximately 3.5 times more than in 2015. About 40
percent of this is for single use plastic packaging, a major cause of the
Shell’s plastics plant, and similar
investments, make it even more challenging to meet the Paris climate target.
The report, therefore, advocates the following measures:
- Stop production and use of disposable single-use plastics;
- Stop the development of new oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructure;
- Promote the transition to zero waste lifestyle;
- Implement extended producer responsibility as an essential part of a circular economy;
- Embrace ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gases in all sectors, including plastics production.
THE CO2 BOOKKEEPING OF SHELL
In December 2017, Shell announced its Net Carbon Footprint ambition. Last April, the target was set to 65 percent reduction by 2050 and, as an intermediate step, 30 percent by 2035. But to reach the Paris agreements, CO2 emissions must be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 and zero by 2050. In addition, Shell’s Net Carbon Footprint ambition implies a relative reduction in emissions. Therefore, there isn’t any certainty that there will be an absolute reduction in CO2 emissions, which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is necessary to reach the Paris Agreement goals.
There is another catch under Shell’s plans. The ‘Net Carbon Footprint’ only calculates the CO2 emissions of energy products, such as petrol. Other products, like chemicals, lubricants and plastics, are not included in the calculations. Ethylene, the product of the Pennsylvania plastics plant, is therefore not included because it is not an energy product. This is how greenhouse gas emissions from plastics are excluded from Shell’s CO2 accounts.
According to the CIEL report, the
Pennsylvania plant alone will emit as many greenhouse gases as almost 500,000
new cars a year.
Photo: Shell cracker in Beaver Country. Taeke Zuidema/PublicSource
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