Rising sea levels, more and increasingly severe extreme weather events, water shortages – the list goes on. The planet is heating up, and so is the fight against climate change. We all have a part to play, from individual households to entire industries, and chemistry is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal.
“It sounds like something your second-grade science teacher would have said to convince you it isn’t a boring subject, but chemistry really is everywhere,” says Pia Vilenius, Senior Advisor, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy at the Chemical Industry Federation of Finland. “I’ve studied it and been fascinated by it, and now I get to work on projects where chemistry can and will make a real difference in the fight against climate change.”
Circular economy thinking – where the goal is to move toward a world where materials are reused to make new products over and over again instead of being destroyed at the end of their useful life – has a huge role to play in the fight against climate change.
“Most of us recycle in some form or other, whether its paper and metals or bio waste from food, and once these materials are taken away for processing it’s chemistry that makes recycling possible. If we take bio waste as an example, chemistry makes it possible for us to use that waste to produce cleaner bio-based fuels for everything from vehicles to industrial processes, and fertilizers for growing food,” Vilenius explains. “I like to say that chemistry is the circular economy, and the circular economy is chemistry, and bio waste is a great example of this.”
Many industries have set a target to eventually become carbon neutral, in other words to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as they release into it. “Achieving this goal will require everyone to work together – industries, governments, and society as a whole,” says Vilenius.
“The most important things will be access to more sustainable energy supplies and new technologies for carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). With carbon capture and use we can keep carbon in the loop and reuse it in our processes and products to minimize emissions,” she highlights. “And of course, without chemistry, CCUS would be impossible.”
When you casually toss food into the mixed waste bin, has it ever crossed your mind that you’re part of the climate change problem? Producing uneaten food means wasted water, energy, and land, and generates greenhouse gases at every stage of the process, including methane when you throw it away.
If food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases
Every year about one third of the food produced for human consumption ends up uneaten, and in terms of the impact on climate change, if food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. So where does chemistry come in?
“The chemistry used to produce food packaging helps to keep food fresher for longer, keeps the contents from leaking out, and makes sure the packaging material is safe and hygienic. This means less food is wasted, and therefore helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Vilenius explains.
Access to clean water for drinking, washing and cooking is something many of us take for granted. We give little thought to the processes, infrastructure, and of course, chemistry that makes it possible to deliver it straight to our homes. Climate change rears its ugly head here too, with water availability becoming less predictable in many places, increased flooding contaminating water sources, and droughts making water increasingly difficult to access.
Water reuse helps to protect our increasingly scarce sources of fresh water
“Chemistry helps to mitigate the problem by enabling industries to treat water for reuse over and over again in their processes, and for farmers to reuse water for things like crop irrigation,” Vilenius points out. “This helps to protect our increasingly scarce sources of fresh water so that more is available for everyone.”
As we wake up to the fact that we all have to do our bit to fight climate change, whether through recycling, our choice of fuel, or the food we buy, it’s reassuring to know that chemistry provides us with our most powerful weapons. As Vilenius says, “chemistry is everywhere,” so we’d be silly not to use it.