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IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme



Petrochemicals are an important building block of a huge range of products that underpin modern daily life and economic activity. With global demand likely to continue to grow, it becomes increasingly important to reduce the carbon footprint and increase the energy efficiency of petrochemicals production.


With a focus on methanol, olefins and ammonia/urea, this study explored potential options to produce petrochemical products in a more sustainable manner. The primary aim was to establish a methodology to assess different aspects of the sustainability of petrochemical production. The report investigates the impact of a combination of industry drivers on the historic, current and future status of the petrochemical industry.



For each petrochemical explored, assessments were undertaken to gain insight into the sustainability prospects of the industry:


  • Market analysis. An assessment of the historic and current status of market trade, including trends in end-uses, feedstocks, demand, production and international trade. Demand projections for each chemical are made based on collected data.


  • Process engineering characterisation of the current and low carbon alternative routes and feedstocks to produce the key petrochemical productions.


  • Environmental life cycle assessment of the various feedstocks and production methods for each petrochemical and a contribution analysis of the key environmental impacts.


  • Market projection of petrochemical production and technology mixes for a key region, China, for the time period 2010 – 2050.
  • A series of expert stakeholder interviews on views of how the petrochemical industry may progress in terms of demand, costs, environmental impacts and policy drivers.

Given the high regional variability in costs, feedstocks and processes that contribute to a strong global trade, substantial challenges to decarbonise petrochemicals were identified. And with ever-increasing demand, the implementation of an effective emissions policy was deemed vital to meet climate targets.


To decarbonise the petrochemical industry, low-carbon routes must be pursued via a combination of effective policy implementation, improved processes and a closing of the gap in costs when compared with mature fossil fuel options. From a technology perspective, a smaller carbon footprint may be achieved by improving the efficiency of a process, by developing innovative processes, by applying CCS, by employing suitable bio-based feedstocks and by deploying low-carbon hydrogen.


In relation to improvements of the methodology tested in this report, a number of recommendations have been made. Given the broad range of assessments included in this study, it was clear that a deeper and more insightful analysis could be achieved if the focus was narrowed, e.g. to focus on olefins or methanol or ammonia/urea, rather than explore all three.

This report is free to download.