The Environmental Importance of Energy Use in Chemical Production


Address correspondence to: Prof. Dr. Stefanie Hellweg Schafmattstrasse 6 8093 Zürich Switzerland


In many cases, policy makers and laymen perceive harmful emissions from chemical plants as the most important source of environmental impacts in chemical production. As a result, regulations and environmental efforts have tended to focus on this area. Concerns about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, however, are increasing in all industrial sectors. Using a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach, we analyzed the full environmental impacts of producing 99 chemical products in Western Europe from cradle to factory gate. We applied several life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) methods to cover various impact areas. Our analysis shows that for both organic and inorganic chemical production in industrial countries, energy-related impacts often represent more than half and sometimes up to 80% of the total impacts, according to a range of LCIA methods. Resource use for material feedstock is also important, whereas direct emissions from chemical plants may make up only 5% to 10% of the total environmental impacts. Additionally, the energy-related impacts of organic chemical production increase with the complexity of the chemicals. The results of this study offer important information for policy makers and sustainability experts in the chemical industry striving to reduce environmental impacts. We identify more sustainable energy production and use as an important option for improvements in the environmental profile of chemical production in industrial countries, especially for the production of advanced organic and fine chemicals.