Experts agree that industry and long-distance transport will be the most difficult sectors of the economy to decarbonize. But the petrochemical industry is doubly challenged: Not only are enormous quantities of carbon dioxide released during the manufacture of chemicals and plastics, but the products themselves embed carbon taken from the geosphere, most often natural gas or petroleum.

The manufacture of petrochemicals—the building blocks of plastics, solvents, detergents, lubricants, synthetic fibers, and many other products—is responsible for up to 5% of global CO2 emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In the US, chemical plants contribute around one-fifth of industrial CO2 emissions. That doesn’t count the carbon that reenters the atmosphere when the chemicals or plastic products eventually decompose.

Big reductions in CO2 emissions from petrochemical production can be had by decarbonizing the fossil-fueled high-temperature heat and power that’s needed for the steam crackers that thermally break...

You do not currently have access to this content.