Joining forces for the sustainable transformation


Materials are an important factor when it comes to driving circularity as well as lowering the carbon footprint of products and entire sectors. Steel, glass and concrete are the usual suspects that quickly come to mind when thinking of emission-intensive materials.

These materials are especially important when looking at the growing size of the world’s population and urban areas and subsequent need for new buildings. Being responsible for nearly 40% of global emissions, the construction sector has a 20 times bigger contribution to climate change than, for example, the global emissions of international air travel. That means making construction more sustainable by using ever more sustainable materials can have a huge impact when it comes to lowering the carbon footprint of the way we live.

The two German chemical companies Henkel and Covestro decided to collaborate and to jointly contribute to the transition of this industry

Why alternative raw materials and the collaboration of companies like Henkel and Covestro are important and necessary for making buildings ever more sustainable is something we asked Dr. Sebastian Barth, Director Sustainable Materials at Henkel Adhesive Technologies, and Dr. Mathias Matner, Head of Sustainability at Covestro’s Coatings and Adhesives Business Entity.

Sebastian, Henkel wants to pioneer sustainability and reduce carbon emissions. How important is the role of sourcing the right raw materials for this endeavor?

Dr. Sebastian Barth: Sourcing the right raw materials is and will be absolutely vital. 60% of emissions along Henkel Adhesive Technologies’ value chain are purchased with the raw materials we source in form of so-called Scope 3 emissions. To understand CO2 emissions of a certain raw material holistically, we have to differentiate between embedded carbon and process emissions and both of them have to be considered.

On the first of the two: In the chemical industry a lot of raw materials are based on crude oil or natural gas, which are made of carbon. Embedded emissions are produced when, at the end of useful life, a product is desegregating and CO2 is released into the atmosphere. One of the most important concepts to driving circularity and address scope 3 end-of-life emissions is to transition from fossil carbon to renewable carbon for all organic chemicals and materials. Renewable carbon entails all carbon sources that avoid or substitute the use of any additional fossil carbon from the geosphere. It comes from sources which can be (re)grown, (re)captured or (re)cycled and it circulates between biosphere, atmosphere or technosphere, creating a carbon circular economy.

Process emissions in turn allude to the step of material processing that is required to refine our raw materials. It needs energy. It therefore creates further emissions that add to the overall carbon footprint of a product. The same goes for every player along the value chain. So everyone has to look at their own operations to ensure energy efficiency and switch to renewable energy sources. Addressing these so-called Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions is the homework we all have to do, if we want to lead by example. At Henkel we have set ourselves strong ambitions and want to become climate positive in our operations by 2030. This means we will cut down our emissions to zero and distribute surplus green energy to third parties. And we are well on track here: By 2023, as Henkel Adhesive Technologies business unit we achieved a share of over 90% of electricity sourced from renewable sources and reduced emissions by 55% per ton of product (vs. 2010 baseline).

What’s the take of a raw materials provider like Covestro on this?

Dr. Mathias Matner: At Covestro we see our responsibility and want to tackle this heads-on. We know that that we are an enabler for a sustainable transformation. Our materials can be found in thousands of end products. If we make our products more sustainable, it will therefore impact the carbon footprint of all these products. This is why we just like Henkel do our homework: We have set ourselves very ambitious targets for climate neutrality and push for circularity. We are already in full swing: By the end of 2023, we had almost one fifth of our electricity demand covered from alternative sources.

Furthermore, we are developing recycling technologies for our core materials such as precursors for soft foam, rigid foam or polycarbonates and others to enable their full circularity. And additionally, we are sourcing an ever increasing amount of alternative raw materials that have an ever lower carbon footprint compared to traditional fossil-based feedstock. You see: By altering our raw material base to more sustainable materials, and by being climate neutral ourselves, we try to push for change. So when pull is added from the markets, we are ready and can support. The way Covestro and Henkel are doing it for wood adhesives is a great example for how such a relationship and mutual influence works. It shows that things are moving into the right direction.

Where do you see the biggest gap/needs mid- and long-term to be filled to decarbonize materials and the chemical industry in general?

Dr. Sebastian Barth: This shift we are talking about is a centurial task. It involves nothing less than transforming energy supply, adjusting production processes, ramping up supply chains for alternative raw materials, switching logistics to carbon neutrality, and enabling full recyclability. All at the same time.

The good thing is: The topic is high on our, the political and societal agenda. However, the challenge currently lies in the scarcity of renewable energy, renewable carbon-based materials, cutting-edge technologies, and the essential infrastructure needed to bring about this change. To overcome these hurdles I see two success factors: The first one is an in-depth understanding of materials. That is why we at Henkel are diving into the intricacies of the value chains behind different raw materials, identifying levers for CO2 reduction, and steering our raw material portfolio towards renewable carbon-based alternatives. The second success factor is end-to-end collaboration across the entire value chain. This involves utilizing know-how to cultivate collaboration, ensuring access to scarce materials, investing in and adapting new technologies, and engaging stakeholders along the value chain, for example right from the beginning of the product design.

Dr. Mathias Matner: I totally agree to what Sebastian is saying. We see that the transformation has already begun, but it is heavy work and won’t happen overnight. So in the public dialogue the constant impression is that it is not fast enough: Sharing this feeling, we are hitting the gas pedal but also see that we urgently need to accelerate in certain areas, for example the ramp-up of renewable energies and alternative raw material sources. For other areas like recycling we work on technology and value chains, but it will need strong targets and science-based, enabling regulation to accelerate the installation of collecting, sorting and recycling systems in a way that the economy becomes more circular and produces as little waste as possible. All of these necessary changes will require years of continuous innovation, investment and upscaling – and a profound cultural change. Covestro’s activities for a more sustainable future and cooperations like ours with Henkel reassure me: We are on the right path.

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