Climate talks to focus on emission-trading rules while pressure builds for stronger controls
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World Chemical Outlook 2019
Governments must settle on greenhouse gas emission–trading rules.
Countries are under pressure to boost their emission-control pledges.
A policy campaign called the Green New Deal could counter the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken emission controls.
This year’s international negotiations to stem climate change will include makeup work that was supposed to be completed in December.
Countries meeting in Poland last month completed most of a rule book laying out standards for transparency and data sharing as they fulfill pledges to control greenhouse gas emissions. But they failed to agree on how to guide market-based greenhouse gas emission trading.
The emission-trading part of the rule book “is critical for mobilizing private sector investment” in cleaner energy worldwide, says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a US nonprofit. It is urgent for governments to complete this last part of the rule book by the end of the year, he says.
This year’s climate change conference, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 11–22 in Chile, will mark the last negotiation session before countries must act to meet their emission-control commitments. Those commitments were made under the Paris Agreement, a 2015 accord that includes pledges from nearly every country to fight climate change.
Meanwhile, United Nations secretary general António Guterres is calling world leaders together for a climate summit in September. Guterres wants governments to take on more ambitious goals under the Paris Agreement.
“This will be the acid test of how serious they are in their professed commitment to averting a climate catastrophe,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says about the leaders called to the summit.
The US, historically the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is currently operating counter to the majority of the world. The Trump administration continues to promote fossil fuels and is working to relax greenhouse gas regulations put in place by the Obama administration. But these efforts may face new opposition.
An economic stimulus campaign proposed by progressive activists and dubbed the Green New Deal appears to be gaining political momentum, especially among newly elected Democrats in the US House of Representatives. While details are sparse, the proposal includes government investment in renewable energy infrastructure, energy efficiency measures, and electricity grid upgrades.
Concerns about air quality are coming to the fore as the middle class grows in the major cities of China and India. But while China is reducing its air pollution, residents of India are still hoping for action.
Air quality is starting to improve in China.
India’s government is still working on a plan to improve air quality.
Increasing concerns about air quality in both countries opportunities for chemical firms.
“China’s response to its air pollution problems was strong and promising,” said Robert O’Keefe, vice president of the nonprofit research organization the Health Effects Institute. He was commenting on the November release of a report by Clean Air Asia showing air-quality improvement in China. China “is becoming a national leader in reducing air pollution,” O’Keefe said.
While air quality in China is significantly worse than in the US, the environmental group’s report revealed that, from 2013 to 2017, total air concentrations of five out of six major pollutants fell in the country’s 74 largest citiescities. And last summer the country launched a three-year action plan to win what it calls “the battle for a blue sky.”
China will next turn its attention to global warming. By far the world’s largest total emitter of carbon dioxide, it has stabilized CO2 emissions since 2009. The government is working on a national carbon-trading scheme to start to bring them down.
In India, the outlook is discouraging. In June, Delhi recorded its worst air pollution in four years as particles generated by dust storms in nearby Rajasthan settled over the city for days. Last month, Delhi’s air pollution wasn’t quite as bad but was still described by the nonprofit group World Air Quality Index as “hazardous” on some days.
Unlike in China, Indian authorities are only beginning to address the problem. The country is putting together a National Clean Air Programme that, according to some reports, will not impose binding targets for major cities.
For companies, the desire to improve air quality means opportunity. BASF is looking to boost sales of vehicle catalytic converters and industrial catalysts that reduce air emissions, as well as dispersions for interior paints to reduce formaldehyde fumes. Last month the company announced a new vehicle catalyst plant in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, catalyst producer Johnson Matthey started construction this summer on an automobile catalyst plant in Zhangjiagang, China. Both firms’ investments are motivated by stricter emission standards.
Hot spots of drinking water contaminated with toxic fluorocarbons in Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, and the US grabbed headlines last year. In 2019, expect scientists to look for—and find—more areas polluted with nonpolymeric per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in those countries and across the world.
Discovery of more PFAS-contaminated drinking water is almost a given.
US states are likely to adopt their own limits for PFAS as the Environmental Protection Agency decides whether to act.
“It’s going to seem to the public like the problem is getting worse,” says Ginny Yingling, a research scientist at the Minnesota Department of Health and a PFAS expert. But scientists will just be identifying existing contamination through better analytical methods, says Yingling, who coleads the US Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council’s PFAS team.
Scientists are also likely to identify additional PFAS besides well-known legacy compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid, that were used industrially for decades, Yingling adds. Data indicate that at least some of these legacy chemicals, which have been found in people’s blood, can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Few toxicity data are available on many PFAS that replaced the older ones.
More widespread detection of these chemicals will likely trigger more calls from the public for cleaning up PFAS contamination, Yingling says.
In the US, states facing contamination problems will be under pressure to act on their own. That’s because the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, has said the EPA is weighing only the need for a federal drinking-water limit for certain widespread PFAS.
Researchers and regulators are increasingly concerned that these substances are spreading into the food supply through polluted water and the use of treated sewage sludge to improve soils. Australia warned people living where drinking water is tainted with PFAS from nearby military installations not to eat leafy greens harvested from gardens or home-raised poultry, eggs, beef, or lamb.
In 2019, Yingling expects to see advances in treatment technology for PFAS-tainted water supplies, moving beyond today’s standard of activated carbon filters.
Meanwhile, financial liability is expanding for militaries and companies that make or use PFAS—or formerly did so. Utilities are seeking money from polluters to pay for cleaning up PFAS-contaminated drinking-water supplies.
With pressure mounting globally to increase plastic recycling and ban single-use plastics, 2019 promises to be a tricky year for polymer manufacturers.
More than 60 countries have or plan some form of ban on single-use plastics.
UK plastic producers may pay up to $1.3 billion annually for their products to be recycled.
Polyethylene and polypropylene face upheaval.
More than 60 countries have introduced—or plan to introduce—some form of ban on single-use plastics in a bid to curb the 8 million or so metric tons per year of plastic flowing into the world’s oceans. And manufacturers face a shift in customer behavior after more than 260 companies that consume 20% of the world’s plastic packaging voluntarily agreed last year to step up their recycling efforts.
The drive for plastic bans and recycling will fundamentally change the petrochemical industry, Ashish Chitalia, a principal analyst with the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, told journalists in a recent online presentation.
The European Union aims to be at the forefront of the drive. It recently decided to ban the 10 single-use items most likely to end up on European beaches, including straws and cotton swabs, by 2021.
Both the EU and the UK are also contemplating a plastic tax. The UK plan would require plastic producers to pay the full cost of managing plastic waste, estimated at up to £1.0 billion ($1.3 billion) annually.
Polyolefin growth typically exceeds economic growth, but starting in 2025, increased recycling will cause it to dip below economic growth, Wood Mackenzie forecasts. By 2035, demand may actually start falling.
Polyethylene and polypropylene, which together make up more than 60% of all plastic sold, are not widely recycled and thus face more market upheaval than polyethylene terephthalate, the recycling leader. Up to 40% of polyethylene goes to single-use consumer products.
In the 1967 film The Graduate, the lead character, played by Dustin Hoffman, is famously advised to forge a career in plastics. “Well, Dustin Hoffman wouldn’t be told to get into plastics anymore. He’d be told to go into recycled plastics,” says Paul Hodges, chair of the London-based consulting firm International eChem.
Still, for the near term, trends such as population growth and escalating incomes will continue to drive up consumption of virgin plastic, Wood Mackenzie predicts.
Environmentalists are hoping to see a shake-up in 2019 at the US Environmental Protection Agency office that evaluates the potential risks of chemicals and pesticides. That office will get a new leader this year, Alexandra Dunn, who could take implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in a new direction.
A new leader and an upcoming court ruling will influence the Environmental Protection Agency’s chemical office.
Lawmakers will scrutinize the EPA’s implementation of the revised Toxic Substances Control Act.
The EPA will face pressure to finalize Obama-era restrictions on certain toxic chemicals.
Several environmental groups and members of Congress want the EPA to change course in how it is implementing TSCA, which was revised in 2016. Advocates for change claim that under the Trump administration, the EPA has been approving the use of chemicals with insufficient toxicity data and failing to evaluate all uses of chemicals.
In 2017, a coalition of environmental and public health groups challenged the EPA rules for prioritizing and evaluating chemicals under the updated TSCA. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is expected to rule in the case this year, and the court’s decision will likely dictate the direction that EPA’s chemical office takes.
In the meantime, lawmakers are expected to keep a close eye on the EPA’s actions related to several chemicals. Some Democrats are concerned about the agency’s handling of asbestos under the revised TSCA. Lawmakers are also pushing the EPA to finalize a ban on trichloroethylene in degreasers and dry-cleaning spot removers, eliminate polychlorinated biphenyls from light fixtures in schools and childcare facilities, and release an overdue assessment of the health risks of formaldehyde.
Republican leaders in the Senate are asking for limits on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which contaminate many US military bases and drinking-water supplies. They are also calling for the EPA to make a decision quickly about methylene chloride in paint removers, which can be fatal when used without proper ventilation.
The EPA will likely face increased pressure to act on those chemicals as well as meet several deadlines under the amended TSCA. The agency’s top priority is to complete risk evaluations for 10 substances by the end of the year, as required by the law. The EPA announced the 10 chemicals in December 2016 and released a draft human health risk assessment for one of them—pigment violet 29 (PV29)—in late 2018. Assessments on the other nine, which include asbestos, methylene chloride, and trichloroethylene, are expected soon.
But environmentalists predict that the EPA will not find any health risks associated with the chemicals because the agency’s current process underestimates exposure, they say.
In the case of PV29, the EPA relied on a personal communication with an employee of a PV29 manufacturer to estimate a maximum workplace air concentration. “Based on this questionable calculation, EPA concludes definitively that workers face no risk from PV29 inhalation,” Richard Denison, a lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental advocacy group, says in a recent blog post.
The US EPA must complete risk assessments for these chemicals by the end of 2019.
Pigment violet 29
Tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene
Several cyclic aliphatic bromide flame retardants
The "Top 10" list in the chemical regulation story was corrected on Dec. 16, 2019, to say 1-bromopropane instead of 2-bromopropane.