This is a guest editorial byLisa Anne Hamilton, the adaptation program director for the Georgetown Climate Center and lead author of the “Plastic and Climate” report published during her tenure as the director of the Climate and Energy Program for the Center for International Environmental Law.
The petrochemical industry sits at the center of the present-day climate crisis in more ways than one. Not only are the building blocks of hundreds of petrochemical products, and the manufacturing processes to create them, among the fastest-growing and most-overlooked sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but demand for these products is growing. At the same time, the companies that make them are vulnerable to industrial accidents caused by extreme weather tied to climate change.
Analysts project that petrochemicals will account for a third of oil and gas consumption by 2030 and half by 2050. The industry is feeding growing global demand for single-use plastics and fertilizers, among other consumer products.
Balancing regulatory risks related to climate mitigation against these global demand projections for petrochemicals presents challenges to both the private and public sectors.
Climate change and environmental sustainability are driving legal and policy decisions in over 190 countries, in large part because of the Paris Agreement. Segments of the petrochemical industry must now speculate about the pending scale of regulatory intervention to address plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The degree of aggressiveness of those initiatives is uncertain and hinges on how much regulators decide to limit global warming.
For this reason, climate-related data are increasingly used to inform corporate decision-making, whether it’s estimating the cost of a possible carbon tax on operations or measuring the cumulative emissions of an industry’s supply chain.
Chemical producers that position themselves to withstand the headwinds of regulatory uncertainty will likely pivot to less-carbon-intensive feedstocks and implement combined heat and power technologies to reduce emissions from their manufacturing processes, among other mitigation options.
But mitigating the sources of greenhouse gas emissions is only one part of the climate equation. Adaptation and resilience strategies are just as important for sustaining business operations despite climate disruptions.
Legal questions concerning the duties, obligations, and liability risks associated with failing to plan for foreseeable climate disruptions are being argued in courtrooms across the country. For example, in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey created a sudden storm surge that caused refrigeration systems at an Arkema manufacturing plant to fail, ultimately leading to chemical fires (see page 38). First responders and civilians have filed lawsuits claiming a failure to warn and damages caused by the lingering health conditions that residents link to the explosions. These cases ask the courts to answer questions about the duties and obligations of facility owners to assess their emergency management strategies when flooding was a foreseeable risk.
While the outcomes of these cases are pending, what is certain is that planning for climate impacts is as essential to decision-making as is mitigating emissions. As the science to predict climate-related events becomes even more precise, adaptation strategies are just as, and possibly even more, critical. By all indications, the survivors of the climate crisis will be those who adapt.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.