One might think they came out of Albrecht Dürer‘s macabre woodcut – the horsemen of the apocalypse who are sweeping the world with war, hunger and disease. Disasters like the corona pandemic, which made us so acutely aware of the fragility of our existence. Like the war in the Ukraine, which shows the full extent of violence and brutality that simmers beneath the veneer of civilization.
But alongside such sudden tremors, alongside the galloping crises, there are the insidious, creeping developments. More elusive, but no less dangerous in their devastating long-term effects. A Dürer tableau of modernity would certainly include climate change, the exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of the environment with the extinction of species and the waste crisis. Since the middle of the last century, humanity has been making massive changes in the earth system, which seriously threaten our livelihoods.
I think that we absolutely have to keep an eye on these long-term threats, besides the gigantic problems of today. The initiated transformation towards comprehensive sustainability must not remain patchwork. It can succeed if we make comprehensive systemic changes. The consistent conversion to circular economy would be such a fundamental transition, which could turn the unhealthy lifestyle of raw material extraction, production, consumption and throwing away into the opposite.
This holds true in particular for the resource-intensive chemical industry. After all, with its demand for fossil resources, the sector accounts for around seven percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Ukraine crisis is a stark reminder of this fatal dependency on oil, gas and coal. So the order of the day is green transformation – now more than ever.
For chemistry, this means in particular circulating carbon, its central building block. And our industry provides the key itself by driving innovative technologies – like chemical recycling, which allows to recycle used plastic and the carbon bound in it on a large scale. Fortunately, the German Federal Government and the European Union have recognized the importance of this.
Now all the skills of our chemists are required – in close cooperation with other disciplines – to further develop chemical recycling. There are promising approaches. The Europe-wide research project Circular Foam for example, which brings together 22 very different partners from nine countries. Their common goal is to chemically recycle insulating foam for cooling devices and buildings. A flagship project that could save one million tons of waste and almost three million tons of CO2 in Europe every year from 2040.
Of course, we also need an innovation-friendly environment for such forward-looking endeavors, and the European regulatory framework must give us room to breathe. But all this is only half the battle. The right breeding ground is also absolutely necessary: social support. The willingness to engage in constructive cooperation and a rational, fact-based dialogue. If social demarcation and conspiracy narratives continue to spread, our knowledge-based society won’t make any progress. But the academic world itself is also challenged here. It seems to me that greater openness and grounding is required in order to better convey the meaning and purpose of science. What we need is a visionary pragmatism to solve the challenges of the future in the here and now.
Dr. Markus Steilemann
CEO Covestro, Leverkusen