The petrochemical industry is set for explosive growth worldwide, driven by demand for plastics in developing nations, a new report by the International Energy Agency says.
Already humming along to supply industrial and consumer products, petrochemical manufacturing is expected to outpace transportation fuels as the main user of hydrocarbon-based raw materials by 2050, primarily to meet demand of developing countries.
Currently, petrochemicals draw 14% of oil and 8% of natural gas raw material.
Plastics production has nearly doubled since 2000, outpacing all other bulk materials, such as steel, aluminum, or cement, the report says. It notes that economically developed countries currently use up to 20 times more plastic than developing nations on a per capita basis.
That amount of consumption means that already a staggering one million plastic bottles are manufactured each minute, IEA researchers estimate.
The dynamic growth in the petrochemical sector is driving new trends around the world, IEA says. In the U.S., after decades of chemical industry stagnation, companies have taken advantage of new demand and the shale gas revolution to dramatically increase production. The U.S. is now home to around 40% of the global ethane-based petrochemical production capacity. However, the Middle East remains the lowest cost center for many key petrochemicals.
The report warns that production, use, and disposal of petrochemical-derived products present climate, air quality, and water pollution problems. For instance, the petrochemical sector currently consumes roughly as much energy as the steel and cement sectors combined. However, on the flip side, it emits less carbon dioxide than either sector. Still, the total air releases from petrochemical production amount to around 18% of all industrial-sector CO2 emissions, or 5% of worldwide combustion-related CO2 emissions.
The lower carbon emissions are in part because the chemical industry consumes mostly oil and gas while other heavy industries rely more on coal. Also the carbon in chemical feedstocks is mostly locked into final products. However, that benefit is offset if the end products are burned or decompose, releasing carbon.
The report urges greater recycling of plastic products and a curb to single-use plastics. These efforts are underway in Europe, Japan, and Korea. But the impact of these efforts will be far outweighed by the sharp increase in plastic consumption in developing nations.
To address these challenges, the report outlines an ambitious scenario that would cut air pollutants by almost 90%, CO2 emissions by nearly 60%, and water demand by nearly 30%. It calls for tripling the collection rate of plastics materials for reuse or recycling. The effort would also require application of carbon capture and utilization at petrochemical plants, an advanced technology that has proven to be expensive and has had little success when applied at scale.