The world must build up its use of renewable and recycled carbon by 2050 in order to hit climate goals, explains Unilever’s Peter ter Kulve

As UN secretary general Antonio Guterres reminded us at the conclusion of COP26: “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher and yet major opportunities are still being missed.

COP26 closed with world leaders agreeing to a series of major climate pledges – from cutting carbon dioxide emissions to reducing reliance on coal and speeding up adoption of clean technology.

But the energy transition will only solve half the climate problem – it is only half of the equation. We must also work to design a fully circular economy; one that goes beyond recycling, learning to embed circularity at every stage of the process and into every ingredient.

And yet, despite its transformative potential, circularity was noticeably downplayed at the conference this year. To address the climate crisis, we must expose hidden carbon embedded into the very materials we make, use and dispose; aiming to prevent waste and pollution from being created in the first place.  

According to a report published by Nova Institute, every year the chemical and materials industry uses 450 million tonnes of carbon to create everyday products. From the cleaning products to clean our homes, to the insulation that keeps our houses warm, and the solar panels we use to power them – we are surrounded by commodities that are the product of carbon derived from fossil fuels. It is the backbone of life as we know it. The reality is that 85 per cent of that carbon currently comes from fossil fuel sources.

While it is true that most of the carbon we extract from the ground today is used for energy and fuels, emissions related to chemicals and materials are fast increasing as global population grows and standards of living rise. Countries may be pushing ahead with decarbonising the energy sector by embracing renewables, but decarbonisation is not an option for the chemical and materials sector as carbon is embedded into products and released back into the atmosphere at their end-of-life stage.

Instead, the industry will need to invest in and innovate alternative sources of carbon to break free of its reliance on virgin fossil carbon – an approach we at Unilever call the Carbon Rainbow. That means moving away from non-renewable (black) carbon and sourcing this instead from captured carbon (purple carbon), plants (green carbon), marine sources (blue carbon) or carbon recovered from waste material (grey).

We must also forge new partnerships to enable innovation. At Unilever, we recently partnered with LanzaTech and India Glycols to produce laundry capsules made, for the very first time, from captured industrial carbon emissions instead of from fossil fuels. This is a truly incredible example of how circularity can be embedded in the raw ingredients in our products.

But of course, innovation like this takes investment. For the complete shift to renewable and recycled carbon by 2050, we will need to commit billions of dollars into ensure that new technologies are developed, optimised and scaled.

To transform our economy in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we must all jump on. We must be honest and realistic about where we are today to drive meaningful progress tomorrow. In the absence of adequate policy frameworks incentivising a circular carbon economy, the onus is now on manufacturers to nudge their supply chains to deliver materials and products without fossil carbon.

Just because something has always been done a certain way does not make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it unchangeable. As Jocelyn Bleriot’s remarked during an Ellen Macarthur Foundation panel, at COP26 this year: “The linear economy is not something that happened to us, it is something that we created, and therefore something we have the power to change.”

Businesses must work together now to lay the foundations for a new circular economy, building a cleaner planet, and a cleaner future, for generations to come.

Peter ter Kulve is president of Unilever’s home care business and a member of the firm’s leadership executive.

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