'Blind spot': IEA predicts spike in carbon pollution from plastics

Madeleine Cuff
clock • 3 min read

Outcry over single-use plastics not enough to curb rocketing use of the material and rising CO2 emissions, IEA warns

Surging global demand for plastics is set to push up carbon dioxide emissions from the petrochemicals industry and cause a spike in the volume of plastic waste entering the world's oceans, according to a new report released today by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The petrochemicals industry, which uses oil and gas components to produce plastics, fertilisers, and other goods, is poised to consume seven million barrels of oil a day by 2050, the agency predicts.

The projections put the sector on course to become the world's largest single driver of global oil demand, as electric vehicles dampen demand in the transport sector, the IEA said.

Already the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the petrochemicals sector is set to see its emissions rise 20 per cent by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2050, the IEA found.

In large part this surge in activity is down to the world's growing demand for plastics.

Despite a recent public outcry over the impact plastic pollution on the environment, demand for plastics has nearly doubled since 2000. Plastic packaging, mostly used for food and drink containers, is the largest component of single end-use plastic demand, accounting for approximately 36 per cent of the market globally.

As the ranks of the middle classes swell this is only set to increase - the richest nations in the world now use 20 times more plastic per person than developing economies, according to the IEA, a fact it says "underscores the huge potential for global growth" across the plastics industry.

In fact, the IEA believes that any increases in recycling or efforts to curb single-use plastics will be "far outweighed" by sharply increasing plastic consumption in emerging economies.

As well as higher greenhouse gas emissions, rising plastic use will also have harmful effects on water demand, air quality, and the health of the planet's oceans, it adds. The IEA notes the predicted "robust growth" in the petrochemicals industry will have "deleterious effects" in all these areas.

It warns that "without drastic improvements in the management of waste stemming from the sector's key material output - plastics - the quantity of plastic waste, including that entering the oceans, continues to rise from today's already unacceptable levels".

Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director, warned the petrochemicals sector remains a "blind spot" in global efforts to tackle escalating environmental risks.

"Our economies are heavily dependent on petrochemicals, but the sector receives far less attention than it deserves," he said in a statement. "Petrochemicals are one of the key blind spots in the global energy debate, especially given the influence they will exert on future energy trends. In fact, our analysis shows they will have a greater influence on the future of oil demand than cars, trucks and aviation."

To tackle some of these challenges, the IEA proposes an alternative Clean Technology Scenario (CTS), which would be in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure clean air, water and lower CO2 emissions.

The "ambitious but achievable" pathway would cut CO2 emissions 60 per cent compared to business-as-usual, even as global demand for primary chemicals rises by 40 per cent over the same period. Achieving this will require a sharp uptick in recycling rates, the phasing out of single-use plastics, the use of more sustainable feedstocks, and more efficient production methods at refineries. Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) will also play a "critical role" in greening primary chemical production, the IEA adds, accounting for 35 per cent of the emissions reductions 2050.

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