The world in a nutshell

In the face of the escalating challenges posed by climate change, the imperative for societal transformation has never been more evident. Addressing this global crisis requires a collective effort grounded in informed analyses and factual understanding. Our commitment lies in providing comprehensive insights and data-driven perspectives to empower individuals and organisations in navigating the complexities of climate change. Through rigorous research and a dedication to accuracy, we strive to contribute to the essential dialogue surrounding the societal shift needed to combat climate change effectively. Together, armed with knowledge and understanding, we can pave the way for a sustainable future.

Renewable carbon to enhance defossilisation

Chemistry is present in virtually every modern product to achieve the desired performance. It is at the beginning of almost every value chain and is essential to our daily lives. Carbon is a critical component of most chemicals and materials – rightly described as universal building block for life – but to date 90% of the embedded carbon comes from fossil carbon in the ground, oil, natural gas and coal, and is ultimately released into the atmosphere as CO2.

To decouple chemistry from fossil carbon, other sources of carbon must be found that do not lead to additional CO2 emissions. To be truly sustainable, the chemicals and materials industry of the future must source carbon feedstocks exclusively from the atmosphere, biosphere and technosphere, keeping carbon inherently renewable and in sustainable carbon cycles. The equivalent of decarbonisation in the energy sector through renewable energy is the transition to renewable carbon in the chemical and materials industry. Both strategies imply the defossilisation of these industries.

The key question is which non-fossil carbon sources can be used in the future to keep the carbon cycle going. Rapid developments in life sciences and chemistry have opened up novel, renewable and increasingly affordable sources of carbon that provide us with alternative solutions for a more sustainable chemical and materials sector. These alternative sources are: biomass, carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) and recycling. They are grouped together under the term “renewable carbon”, which by definition includes recycled/circular carbon. All three carbon sources together can be sustainably developed to fully replace fossil carbon.

Experts at the nova-Institute have developed the concept of “Renewable Carbon” over the years and published two nova papers on renewable carbon as key to a sustainable and future-oriented chemical and plastics industry. The Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI), founded in 2020 by nova, has taken the concept and developed it further with the policy paper “Renewable Carbon as a Guiding Principle for Sustainable Carbon Cycles”.

On the way to a circular economy

Almost a decade ago the European Commission (EC) presented its Circular Economy Strategy and the related Action Plan “Closing the loop”. Circular economy is understood as a restorative, regenerative model where nothing is lost and everything feeds a new cycle. Nonetheless, the circular economy is still at an early stage, stronger on paper than in practice, where most of the economy is still linear. But the concept of circular economy has significant potential and is crucial to enable sustainability within our planetary boundaries.

The bioeconomy encompasses the production or conversion of renewable biological resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy. Cascading use is a strategy to use biomass as long, often and efficiently as possible for materials and only to recover energy from the end of life. The cascading use of biomass is strongly overlapping with the concept of the circular economy. In this respect, the EC´s Bioeconomy Strategy has anticipated main concepts that were subsequently further developed in the Circular Economy Package, as applied to the biological resource.

The idea of circularity and cascading use can be further expanded in the chemical and materials industries to create a clear vision on how to achieve sustainable carbon cycles. Besides biomass from the biosphere, carbon can also be cycled via recycling or industrial carbon capture within the technosphere and via direct air capture from the atmosphere. The combination of these three pillars enables a system that can be controlled and that phases out the continuous, linear addition of fossil carbon from the geosphere. This way, a foundation can be established to achieve carbon cycles that are truly sustainable.

At nova, we work to make this vision a reality. Our work supports the chemical industry by deep knowledge of the available technology and markets, by assessing the political landscape with potential barriers and opportunities, by evaluating the sustainability of processes and materials to identify and by supporting transparent and reliable communication to all stakeholders in the value chain. nova published several influential publications on the concepts of circular economy and bioeconomy and worked on indicators to measure circularity of materials and products.

Sustainability as the key to success

The meaning of the term “sustainability” goes far beyond an empty phrase and represents a solution for a future-oriented, modern and liveable world. As defined by the UN`s Brundtland Commission, sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It is a holistic approach that balances environmental, social and economic considerations. At a time when global challenges such as climate change and social inequality are on the rise, the need for a sustainable way of life is becoming ever more apparent and economically significant.

Sustainability reporting has become essential for many companies. Transparent reporting on environmental and social impacts is not only required by legislation, but is also deliberately used to promote sustainable business practices and innovative technologies of a company. Society is undergoing a dramatic shift towards a sustainable mindset, which is gaining momentum not only nationally but also internationally. This transformative process is essential for global sustainable development and is particularly relevant for companies that need to operate, develop, optimise and communicate in this environment. If done right, transparent reporting on sustainability efforts can turn into a competitive advantage.

The science behind sustainability claims is critical. Especially with the pressing issue of climate change, reducing CO2 emissions is of paramount importance. Tools such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Carbon Footprints provide a sound scientific basis that allows companies to make informed decisions and communicate transparently about their activities. Coupled with a clear understanding of alternative solutions and relevant policy frameworks, companies can competently ensure that their efforts have positive impact. Integrating science-based sustainability issues into business development helps to address today’s challenges, prepare for the future and promote a sense of responsibility and trust.

nova-Institute offers comprehensive expertise in all of the above aspects to help you navigate the field of sustainability transformation. Sustainability services can range from selective support on specific aspects such as LCAs for products to more comprehensive concepts also covering social and economic aspects for entire projects or companies. nova complements this expertise with regulatory and policy expertise, excellent networks in the EU environment and in-depth knowledge of technologies, markets and manufacturers. In summary, we offer a complete package to support companies embed sustainability in their DNA and generate positive synergies along the way.