Europe aims for ‘zero pollution’ in upcoming chemicals strategy

In 2018, 222.6 million tonnes of hazardous chemicals were produced in the EU, some of which have wide-ranging environmental and health impacts. At the same time, many of them also serve useful purposes for Europe's green transition. [Antoine2K / Flickr]

The European Commission will publish a strategy on Wednesday (14 October) on zero pollution in the chemicals industry, but any white paper will have to walk the same, precarious tightrope as its predecessors.

As part of the European Green Deal, the Commission aims to reach zero pollution in water, air and, importantly, the production and use of chemicals.

“Chemicals serve a myriad of purposes, they make our lives more comfortable and easier,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner.

“Unfortunately the reality is that many chemicals are also hazardous by nature and may lead to irreversible damage to humans and to the environment,” he told a conference on chemicals organised by the Greens last month.

While Sinkevičius admitted the EU already has the most advanced chemical policy in the world, he said there is room for improvement and that the shift to greener chemistry needs to happen quicker.

In 2018, 222.6 million tonnes of hazardous chemicals were produced in the EU, some of which have wide-ranging environmental and health impacts, including causing cancer, cardiovascular diseases and decreased response to vaccines.

At the same time, many of them also serve useful purposes for Europe’s green transition: some are used in the insulation panels and coatings which reduce energy consumption in buildings while others are essential materials for the manufacturing of wind turbine blades or electric car batteries. Others still are indispensable to prevent corrosion of critical equipment used in planes, ensuring the safety of flights.

Deciding which ones to ban and which ones to authorise for specific applications can therefore be notoriously tricky. “The strategy on chemicals should help to clarify the safe use of hazardous substances in certain applications and the societal benefits their use can enable,” said Jacques Ragot, Vice-President Global Governmental Affairs at Covestro, a German chemical firm.

“An overarching sustainability compass, including safety, but also environmental and economic considerations would help to guide the industry on this long-term journey. This could be the basis of a sectoral green deal for the chemical sector,” Ragot said.

The Commission’s new strategy aims to protect people and the environment against hazardous chemicals and encourage innovation into safer alternatives. However, the new strategy is likely to face similar opposition than its predecessor, REACH, which was adopted in 2006 after years of haggling and took almost two decades to fully implement.

“It is high time we put an end to the common misconception that the protection of health and the environment hinders innovation and a competitive economy,” said 10 EU environment ministers in an opinion piece, published in late September.

The ministers called for the Commission to maintain high levels of ambition and deliver “a green and long-term chemicals strategy” with “concrete actions”. They also highlighted the need to accelerate the phase-out of chemicals of concern, have tougher regulation on banned chemicals entering the EU and more streamlined policy.

“Chemicals of concern should only be allowed when their use is considered essential for society,” the ministers added.

Germany, Europe’s biggest chemical producer, was notably absent from the list of signatories. In 2019, it had the highest number of companies flouting the EU’s REACH regulation.

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Innovation is “evidently necessary”

Chemicals are the world’s second largest manufacturing industry and production is expected to more than double by 2050, according to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Bjorn Hansen, the executive director of the European Chemicals Agency, which was created under REACH to set up a database of chemicals used across Europe, said innovation and the use of different chemicals is “evidently necessary if we want a climate neutral 2050”.

It’s hard to quantify how many chemicals would be restricted by the new strategy, Hansen admitted. But the process of approval and authorisation needs to be “accelerated” for new chemicals that reduce energy consumption and enable a more circular economy, he said.

“Any innovation needs two things: it needs carrots and it needs sticks. Sticks are there to get the laggers, and bans in the form of REACH restrictions or authorisation are good legislative vehicles in order to push from behind. You need the carrots for the wagon to move,” he said.

2050 is possible, if the strategy works

Marco Mensink from The European Chemical Industry Council, an industry association, highlighted the challenging economic environment in which the EU strategy will be published as uncertainty grows around Brexit.

The UK is the second largest trade partner for chemicals, worth €45 billion a year, Mensink noted, saying the industry was worried there may be nothing in the new strategy about Brexit. Companies may change where they’re registered and “chemicals could start going missing in some parts of the value chains,” he warned, adding: “We do not yet know where”.

Mensink called on policymakers to avoid pressing for a “massive overhaul” of the EU’s current REACH system for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, which took years to negotiate and implement.

“Prolonged uncertainty is always a challenge for the investment we urgently need,” he pleaded. Commenting on an overhaul of legislation in Europe alone, he added: “If no one follows you, you are not leading, you are on your own.”

According to Mensink, the EU’s new chemical strategy should lay out an enforcement agenda, with innovations and support for small businesses put in place before rules are changed — the carrots Hansen was previously referring to.

Asked how likely it is the industry will meet the 2050 zero pollution target, Mensink said: “I think it’s a clear ambition. Companies will work as hard as possible on it, but we do not have all the answers yet.”

But he said a lot lies in the details and relies on what other countries will do. “If the strategy is put in place in the right way, we get the investments that make that possible. If that’s not the case, it’s going to be very hard,” Mensink said, adding that a breakthrough was needed by 2030 to install the right technology and give the industry the direction to go in.

A complex history

Chemicals regulation in the EU has never been simple. When REACH was brought in to monitor chemicals and create a database listing those dangerous to health, a huge lobbying battle ensnared Brussels with chemical companies warning it could force the closure of factories and cause businesses to relocate outside of the bloc.

The German chemical industry initially warned in 2001 that stricter chemical regulations would cause job losses in Europe, but by 2012, producers like BASF said REACH was worth the considerable investment after all. Since then, the chemicals industry has regularly attacked REACH, branding the regulation a “monster” that would “devour” the industry’s capacity to innovate.

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In Brussels, the new strategy is already marred in EU circles. A leaked draft of the strategy, circulated in July and written by the Commission’s environment directorate led by Sinkevičius was heavily edited by the executive’s internal market directorate, led by Thierry Breton, which criticised a “very negative tone” and said “the wording in the communication should be less definitive and committing”.

In a letter responding to the leaked document, multiple NGOs, including the European Environment Bureau, highlighted fears that the Commission directorate in charge of the internal market, industry, and SMEs (DG GROW) would water down the policy.

“We are very concerned that DG GROW is neglecting scientific evidence on the threats that hazardous chemicals pose to people and to nature. Especially our children will suffer in future from chemical contamination if we do not act now.”

They called on the Commission’s Vice-President in charge of the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, to “step in and ensure that the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability will effectively contribute to achieving a toxic-free environment”.

32% of chemicals non-compliant with EU rules

A third of chemicals do not comply with European Union rules due to insufficient toxicological data. EURACTIV France’s media partner the Journal de l’environnement reports.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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