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Chemicals and climate change

On a global scale, we are using more energy than ever before, and this is having serious effects on the Earth’s climate. But, while the release of some chemicals into the environment can accelerate climate change, chemicals are also part of the solution.

Our need for energy has never been greater. Globally we use more energy than ever before, and the demand is rapidly growing. Economic expansion of emerging market economies, population growth and our increasing use of energy-consuming devices are among the most important contributing factors.

The greenhouse effect

Solar radiation consists of visible light as well as of ultraviolet , infrared and other types of radiation invisible to the human eye.

About one-third of the radiation hitting Earth's atmosphere is reflected back out into space by clouds, ice, snow, sand and other reflective surfaces. The other two-thirds is absorbed by the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. As the land, oceans and atmosphere heat up, they re-emit energy as infrared thermal radiation, which passes through the atmosphere.

Heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) absorb this infrared radiation and prevent it from dissipating into space, giving rise to what we know as the greenhouse effect.

The accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the dominating driver of recent climate change.

Man-made greenhouse gases

CO2 is estimated to be responsible for 64 % of man-made global warming. Other greenhouse gases are released in much smaller amounts but still contribute significantly to the overall warming effect, as they are much more potent heat-trapping gases than CO2. This is the case with methane (CH4), which is responsible for 17 % of man-made global warming, and with nitrous oxide (N2O), which accounts for 6 % of the effect.

The main man-made greenhouse gases and their sources are:

  • CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) – for use in electricity generation, transportation, industry and households – and land-use changes like deforestation;
  • CH4 from agriculture and waste landfilling;
  • fluorinated greenhouse gases – such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) – used in industry.

What is the EU doing to mitigate climate change?

The EU is taking action on many levels. One example is on fluorinated gases that are contributing less than CO2 but still a particular point of concern in addressing climate change. They are used in several types of products, such as in refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump equipment. Further examples are PFCs used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, and SF6 used in insulating gas.

While fluorinated gases are released into the atmosphere in smaller quantities than other greenhouse gases, they are extremely potent – they produce a warming effect 23 000 times greater than CO2.

For this reason the EU has decided to control their use. The EU’s regulation on fluorinated greenhouse gases aims at cutting the Union’s emissions by two-thirds compared to 2014 levels. This initiative is part of the EU’s overall objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 % in 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

Chemicals are everywhere – also as part of the solution

Chemicals are not only part of the problem – they are also part of the solution. Sustainable energy sources like solar power rely on chemical innovation using, for example, nanomaterials.

One of the main challenges with renewable energy is how to increase its viability with the help of energy storage solutions. For example, solar panels have the best conditions in the desert, but that is not where most people live. Windmills also produce power during the night, which is when our energy consumption is at its lowest. In other words, technologies to improve energy storage and transportation is one of the important areas of research where innovation is needed.

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