Right before the Dutch elections, the VNCI (Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry) together with the VNPI (Association of Dutch Petroleum Industries) organised an election debate in January.
Special guest Diederik Samson explained the Green Deal and gave Europe the important assignment to reduce CO2 by 55% before 2030 and become CO2 neutral by 2050. Manon Bloemer, director of the VNCI, embraces this ambition. ‘As the innovators of the Netherlands, we as a chemical industry want to be frontrunners in sustainable chemistry.’
How does the chemical industry actually view the steps that are required for increased sustainability? And how does Bloemer see the role distribution between industry and government?
‘The view on chemical industry is different than thirty years ago. We now have a very pressing CO2 challenge in which the industry plays a key role. The Green Deal is about circularity, about safety, about innovation and about leading the world. That’s what I find inspiring about Mr Samsom’s story. He says, we have a plan, a roadmap to a circular and CO2-free future. It must be inclusive, affordable and fair. But then the crisis hit. But instead of jettisoning all ambitions to become more sustainable, the opposite now seems to be the case. He calls it ‘a green deal on steroids’. There is € 5.6 billion from a European recovery fund ready for Dutch plans to speed up the process of sustainability. So, there are major opportunities for the Dutch industry.’
Chemistry is often about image. You once said that your children associated chemistry with ‘boring and smoking pipes’.
‘At the VNCI, we believe that chemistry needs to be given a more human face. But we are also realistic: the challenges and problems we are talking about are still very technical. So how do you connect the two?’
We primarily make the innovative projects that our members work on every day visible and concrete. I think the recent example, synthetic kerosene, is a very good one. Very innovative and entirely in line with today’s ambitions.
’Great initiatives are also being developed in the field of recycling. I expect that in time, products made from recycled materials will become the new standard. Then they will also become the standard further down the production chain. We cannot force this to happen, but we can develop the technology, have the innovation ready and think with parties about how to choose an alternative with a better carbon footprint. How do you make it more attractive?
But we must also be progressive in training the new generation whom we need to achieve sustainability. The ideal picture is that we not only maintain employment, but even grow it and create interesting jobs. I hope that the intermediate vocational education (MBO) is aware that enough operators, electricians and installers of the future are being trained.’
It costs money to realise all these ambitions. Who is going to pay?
‘All of the chemical companies’ strategic plans for the future are aimed at sustainability. Together with the government and society, we are striving for a circular and low-CO2 economy. We also want to help other sectors to become more sustainable. The investments required for this are enormous. Chemical companies in the Netherlands and Europe are prepared to invest, but not to the point that companies here in Europe go bankrupt or that production is relocated to other parts of the world. That is why the preconditions must be correct. The risk of a lack of technological support, infrastructure and subsidy schemes now lies with companies, while they don’t have any control over those aspects. We see this as a major concern.’
What role do you envisage for the government?
’The government could make smart use of what we call the carrot and the stick. If you strike the industry with a stick, they will say, ‘The conditions have been made so difficult for me in the Netherlands and in Europe. I’m going to make my sustainability investments elsewhere’. And you don’t want that. Above all, you need a reliable government that makes the rules of the game very clear and doesn’t keep changing them, a government that doesn’t just present sticks, but carrots as well.’
And what would that carrot be?
‘The carrot could be that the government supports certain technologies such as hydrogen with subsidies. Compare it with the low additional tax rate for electric cars.
For example, you won’t achieve 55% CO2 reduction by 2030 without Carbon Capture Storage (CCS), i.e., by capturing CO2 and storing it in empty underground gas fields. This is also important for the development of a hydrogen economy, which in time is to replace fossil fuels.
Another carrot could be that the government supports CCS and hydrogen by building infrastructure for the transport of CO2 and hydrogen. The Netherlands has a wonderful starting position. We are already good at hydrogen, let’s make it blue first and then green. And we have an enormous port where you can reach old gas fields within a short distance with relatively small investments. The opportunities are up for grasp, so to speak.’
How innovative is it to put CO2 in the ground?
’I understand the controversy surrounding CCS, and the industry should eventually come up with a better solution. Then it will no longer be CCS but carbon capture and use, CCU, and then the chain will be complete. Another important solution for CO2 reduction is electrification via sun, wind or perhaps tidal power.
We will need at least decades to get this fully operational, in the sense that these green energy sources will be abundantly, cheaply and reliably available. CCS is a temporary solution that allows us to gain time to develop the other technologies, such as the move from blue to green hydrogen. An aircraft recently flew to Madrid on synthetic kerosene. Who knows, maybe the energy of the future will lie in old empty gas fields.’’