Guest Article #33

Chemicals management and climate change

Chemicals are an integral part of the daily life with over 100,000 different substances in use. There is hardly any industry where chemical substances are not implicated and there is no single economic sector where chemicals do not play an important role. While chemicals are a major contributor to national economies, their sound management throughout their lifecycle is essential in order to avoid significant risks to human health and ecosystems along with their associated economic costs. Sound management of chemicals is also critical in order to optimize the operation of chemical and related industries, and to develop sustainable patterns of production.

As a major energy user as well as enabler of energy and emissions-saving solutions in all sectors of society, the chemical industry has a significant role to play in mitigating climate change. Nevertheless, accelerating climate change may alter human chemical exposure, which should be taken into account within adaptive climate change strategy.

The chemicals industry is a significant, albeit not the biggest, user of coal, petroleum products and natural gas, both as a source of energy and as feedstocks for many of its products. In this context, chemical industry's products, processes and research capabilities can contribute to conserving energy, delivering energy more efficiently, developing renewable resources and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, significant improvements have been achieved in energy efficiency within chemicals manufacturing and production process over the past decades. While its production has increased by more than 50% since 1990, its GHG emissions have fallen by more than 20%, mainly by switching from coal to gas powered facilitiesand in investing in combined heat and power (CHP) plants.

Chemical products themselves can enable significant energy savings particularly within the housing and transport sectors. Improved heating and cooling systems, better insulation materials made from chemicals can contribute to savings and GHG reductions that outweigh the energy needed to produce these products. Moreover, the chemicals industry can play a central role as an agent of change and innovation in the technological and technical fields and in providing future energy solutions. For example in solving the safe, efficient separation storage and transport of hydrogen to overcome obstacles facing the development of fuel cells, and in providing materials resistant to severest weather and inputs materials for the development of wind or solar renewable energies.

Nevertheless, accelerating climate change, through extreme precipitation, drought and increased temperature may affect the transformation and breakdown of chemicals and alter human chemical exposure. For example, extreme precipitations, storms and floods threaten water quality by increasing urban and agricultural run-off of industrial chemicals, chemical waste, pesticides and fertilizers. Drought threatens water quality by concentration of non-volatile chemicals and toxic metals. Increased temperatures will cause melting of glaciers and snow close to the poles or at high altitudes and subsequently release semi-volatile chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants, from these sinks/reservoirs. As such snow caps may become sources of release of even banned pesticides and old chemicals...

Similarly, as the world warms, chemical use pattern will likely change in several sectors and affect human exposure levels. Pesticides may degrade more rapidly or pests may thrive in warmer temperatures leading to more frequent use and more human exposure. Increases in vector-borne diseases anticipated with climate change could result in more widespread use of a variety of pesticides to control mosquitoes and other disease vectors. The change to biofuels and use of waste as fuels could result in increased or new sources of chemical contamination on a large scale.

This set of examples of interaction between climate changes mitigation and adaptation strategies and management of chemicals highlights the interconnected nature of environmental challenges and responses. However, GHGs being chemicals, there are also direct connections. Some chemicals are several magnitudes more potent than carbon dioxide and their releases and relative importance in climate change should be kept under scrutiny. Progress and achievements in complying with climate change objectives should complement efforts to prevent further dispersion of harmful chemicals substances and overall should not jeopardize compliance efforts within other ecosystem related MEAs or human health-related internationally agreed goals.

For example, in developing a legally binding agreement on mercury, one of the challenges to be faced by governments involves striking a balance between a reduction in global mercury emissions and any unintended negative consequences such actions may have. Interactions with complex issues, such as climate change, will require careful consideration. Burning of fossil fuels (mainly coal) are the largest single source of mercury emissions from human activities, with power plants being the largest source for many countries. In many casesmeasures to reduce emissions of pollutants, including mercury may be complementary to the reduction of GHG emissions and energy efficiency measures.Optimizing multi-pollutant control techniques will in most cases reduce mercury emissions.