Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, the chief executive officer of Solvay, recently began his role as president of the European Chemical Industry Council. He took the helm of the trade group, known as CEFIC, at a time when the region’s chemical sector is creaking under the pressure of global competition.
But even on his first day of office, at the group’s general assembly in Paris last month, Clamadieu had reason to be optimistic. A survey commissioned by CEFIC and undertaken by APCO Insight, a market research firm, indicates that for the first time in many years the chemical industry’s popularity in Europe is rising.
The sector’s most important positive attribute, according to the survey, is its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable other sectors to do the same through products such as building insulation and lightweight materials for automobiles. It’s a positive sign for the future of the chemical industry because with public acceptance comes a license to operate, Clamadieu said.
APCO found that about 62% of 8,200 members of the public across 12 European countries, as well as 350 policymakers and influencers based in Brussels, consider the chemical industry to be a positive contributor to quality of life. This is a rise of more than 3% compared with the same survey taken for the first time two years ago. The new survey found that a positive public perception of the chemical industry increased the most in France, where it was up 7% for 58% of those surveyed.
The European industry’s improving image is a direct result of efforts during the past few years to highlight chemistry’s contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the provision of innovative products, said APCO President Bryan Dumont. One study put the reduction for 2005 at 3.6 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents.
In contrast, recent surveys in the U.S. and Asia, including one in China, show that public perception of the chemical industry remains static because the sector’s benefits to society have not been well communicated, Dumont added.
The European survey wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. It also identified that perceived risks to the environment and human health posed by industry “remain a concern across the board,” said Graham van’t Hoff, head of Shell Chemicals and a CEFIC board member. Factors such as waste generation and resource consumption were identified by interviewees as the biggest problems.
“If we communicate well about what we do, we can improve our reputation,” van’t Hoff insisted. “There are opportunities for us to keep talking about the general benefits of chemicals to society.”
To encourage an even more positive perception of Europe’s chemical industry, CEFIC may replace the word chemical in its name with the word chemistry. That’s what the main U.S. chemical industry association did almost 15 years ago when it changed its name from the Chemical Manufacturers Association to the American Chemistry Council.
“We’re talking about it,” said Françoise Humbert-Todd, head of public relations at CEFIC. The word chemistry evokes things that are emotional, including love, as well as an association with science, she said. The big European chemical makers Bayer and BASF recently made similar changes to their corporate slogans.
Financial data compiled by CEFIC show that the sector needs all the support from policymakers and the public it can get. Europe’s chemical industry is growing slowly, and its global market share is in decline. The underlying problem is high energy and feedstock costs in the region compared with parts of the world such as the U.S. and the Middle East, Clamadieu said.
European chemical exports for the first six months of 2014 were $28.5 billion, down $2.4 billion compared with the year-earlier period, one of the fastest rates of decline in recent years, said a glum Hubert Mandery, CEFIC’s director general, at the Paris meeting. As a result, CEFIC has downgraded its forecast for chemical production growth this year from 2.0% to 1.5%.
One of Clamadieu’s top priorities during his two-year presidency is to reduce industry’s energy and feedstock costs. A new set of European commissioners in charge of implementing pan-European policies is about to be appointed. If CEFIC members can “communicate the full story” about the chemical industry’s importance to Europe’s economy and CO2 profile, there is a good chance that the new regulators will champion favorable energy policies, Clamadieu said.
In particular, Clamadieu will urge policymakers to promote the extraction of shale gas and liberate energy trading across the entire bloc. Creating a single European energy market to replace today’s disjointed national energy markets could save the region $50 billion annually, according to the consulting firm Strategy&. Getting Europe’s 28 member states to set aside political differences and agree on a single energy policy is, however, a complex process that will move forward at a glacial pace, industry executives acknowledge.
And shale gas would not be “the magic bullet” that serves up cheap energy in the way it has in the U.S., Clamadieu said. Shortcomings such as Europe’s limited gas pipeline infrastructure would hamper widespread introduction across the continent.
After years of head-scratching, CEFIC has discovered that communicating greenhouse gas emissions reductions secured by the industry and its customers can improve its reputation. On the other hand, finding a solution to the fundamental problem of uncompetitive energy and feedstock costs remains a gargantuan challenge. As he starts his two-year tenure as CEFIC president, Clamadieu is hoping that the industry’s strides in the first area will lead at least to baby steps in the other.