Becoming more sustainable together with the industry


I was told for the first time in 3rd class at secondary school about global climate warming, caused by excessive emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. The risks and dangers involved made a big impression on me then, and still do now. Among other things, this was why I chose to study Chemical Engineering and, as a 'hobby', to delve into the energy transition in recent years. In any case, it is clear to me: I want to play a role in energy transition in the coming years.

Let's take a look at the Netherlands: where do our CO2 emissions come from? Since the Dutch Climate Agreement in 2019, the Dutch government has divided emissions into five sectors. In 2021, of the total amount of greenhouse gases, 32 percent were emitted by industry, 19 percent by the electricity sector (mainly due to the burning of natural gas), 18 percent by the mobility sector (domestic traffic and transport), 16 percent by agriculture and 15 percent by the built environment (due to the burning of natural gas for heating (residential) spaces).

What is striking to me is that a third of the emissions are attributable to the industrial sector. The electricity sector also has a large contribution. On (only in Dutch) you can find exactly what the emissions are per company in the Netherlands. A few things immediately stand out: in the industrial sector, the top 20 largest emitters account for almost 70 percent of emissions in that sector. This includes companies like DOW, Chemelot, Yara, Shell, Esso Netherlands, Tata Steel and Air Liquide. A number of energy companies (Vattenfall, RWE) are among the largest emitters in the Netherlands, mainly due to the production of electricity by burning natural gas. But thanks to the latter, you can switch on the lights in your room, your tap-water is purified, you can take the train and we can make all kinds of products in the Netherlands.

If you can tackle the CO2 emissions of the largest emitters in the Netherlands, you will come a long way! But what is the best way? You can ask yourself the question whether we still need these companies. What do those top 20 companies actually produce? Take for example Tata Steel IJmuiden, at the top of that list: their annual steel production is about equal to the annual Dutch steel consumption. Closing Tata Steel means that our steel has to be made elsewhere. The factory in IJmuiden makes steel with one of the lowest CO2 footprints in the world. Result can then be that steel is made elsewhere which emits much more CO2. So, it obviously would be better trying to help Tata Steel as good as possible to become more sustainable. They really want to be more sustainable.

Other companies like DOW, Chemelot, Shell, Esso and Yara are responsible for the raw materials that eventually become the paint on your wall, the material on your sofa and in your mattress, your clothes, and your shampoo. They are also responsible for the fertilizer with which the food you eat is grown, and make the fuels that allow more than seven million cars in the Netherlands to drive from A to B.

Furthermore, the Dutch industry is also responsible for a large part of the Dutch economy (~12% gdp) and represents a lot of jobs in the Netherlands. So, it's a bit of a dichotomy: on the one hand, we are incredibly dependent on these companies to make the life we live possible. On the other hand, they emit an awful lot of CO2. We ask these companies to become more sustainable, but we ourselves consume more and more.

Fortunately, in the Netherlands we are working hard to reduce the emissions of these companies. For example, since the Dutch Climate Agreement, there is a heavy CO2 tax for industry, and there are generous subsidies available when companies start a sustainability process. A lot of these companies really want to become more sustainable, and they have great sustainability projects in their pipeline. They have a huge ambition to make sustainable fuels (like hydrogen), circular products and renewable energy on a large scale. But persistent demand for cheap products, global competition and geopolitical turmoil really makes this no easy task. As a result, there is a strong dialogue between the government and these companies to find a sustainable way forward together, which is slowly bringing result.

I think we should do everything we can to help these companies become more sustainable and stay in the Netherlands. Our products, jobs and the economy is depending on it, and there is so much potential for sustainability in this sector. These companies moreover have the knowledge and expertise required to carry out ginormous energy transition projects, needed to make the world a more sustainable place. The Netherlands has the potential to be a model country in Europe and for the whole world for the energy transition.

Share this article