COP26 EXPLAINER: How a circular economy in the chemical industry can help reach global carbon targets

As part of COP26, countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.

Countries will need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curtail deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles, and encourage investment in renewables.

One not-so-obvious area that can play an important role in tackling carbon dioxide emissions is the chemical industry.

In a new Loughborough University video, Professor Jin Xuan, an expert in low carbon processes and the Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, discusses why countries must turn their focus towards this sector.

“Carbon dioxide emissions from various industrial sources account for 16% of the UK’s total emissions and unfortunately, the chemical sector is one of the highest carbon dioxide emitters among all the UK’s industrial sectors and it is very hard to de-carbonise it”, says Professor Xuan.

“Most of our daily materials and products are essentially made from oil and gas – such as plastic bags – but there are also some not so obvious examples, like my lab coat, which is essentially made from petroleum oil.

“This high reliance on fossil fuels generates serious problems and it means a high amount of carbon is embedded in these products.

“At the end of use, we send these products and materials to the incinerator and all the carbon dioxide is released back to the environment, which causes huge environmental issues and climate change effects.”

Professor Xuan says the solution is a ‘circular economy approach’ and he is the Director of the UKRI Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Chemical Economy – a new £4.3m centre, involving seven UK universities, that aims to improve the sustainability of the UK’s chemical industry.

The ambition of the Centre is to transform the UK’s £32 billion chemical industry into a fossil-independent circular industry by developing sector-wide solutions for the efficient recycling and recovery of chemical resources, such as olefins.

The Centre will deliver interventions and scientific innovations at all levels, starting from the development of new disruptive technologies, their integration into existing processes and evaluation of whole system impacts, to the identification of non-technical barriers and opportunities, and how they can be overcome/realised.

Of the Centre’s importance, Professor Xuan said: “We need to fully recycle and reuse all the waste and emitted carbon dioxide and use it to make fresh chemicals; I believe only by doing this will the chemical industry survive in this great transition towards net zero.

“Our vision is to use a whole system approach to deliver innovative solutions that can be scaled up and create a circular economy for the UK’s chemical industry.

“We are very proud to be a national leader, bringing together stakeholders – such as business, government, and the public – to enable a great transition towards a circular economy, which we believe will play a role in the net zero future to be outlined at COP26.”

More information on the Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Chemical Economy can be found in this press release.

For more on Loughborough University’s COP26 campaign, click here.

COP26 logo for the LU PR campaign

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/236

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022, and 10th in both the Guardian University League Table 2022 and the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.