Pulse delegates will recall hearing from Dr. Søren Bøwadt, deputy Head of Unit at the European Health and Digital Executive Agency about the Horizon Europe initiative. We caught up with him for an update.
ACHEMA Inspire: In your Horizon Europe presentation, one thing stood out to us and that was when you referred to the need to set the standard and be an example for the world. What does that mean in practical terms?
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: Setting standards is, of course, a very tall order when you are talking about something as complex as this, but in general I think that first movers in this business are also the ones that, a least, tend to make the first proposals, so it’s also more likely they will also start leading on these things. But it’s not just that we are, partly, first movers, we have made a plan - and I think the plan in terms of a chemical strategy is relatively solid because it contains many of the elements needed to be able to stay ahead. It means we need to check on, for example, what is the legislation now and where do we want to go with it in the future? How can we make criteria for sustainable chemistry in a broader sense? That’s one thing. And then, secondly, we have also prepared ourselves in terms of making money available for the research that is absolutely needed. This is not something you do in a year or two, it’s something that takes a long time to change, both in terms of not just the attitude but the actual products that will come out of all this at the end of the day. Therefore, what you need to be able to achieve these things is really a collaboration, not only with the community and the companies but on a more global scale, or it won’t have an impact and that’s what we are trying to do.
ACHEMA Inspire: What do you mean by global scale? Any examples?
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: We do now have a collaboration with many so-called third countries, as we term them here in the Commission, which means countries such as Japan or the US or Korea where there is an understanding that we need to follow on this together. For example, we are in a collaboration with a relatively large group from Massachusetts in the US which has spearheaded fundamental thoughts about this and we are willing to act on them. It needs to be not just one country but several if we are to get anywhere.
ACHEMA Inspire: And what about the chemical industry in particular?
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: We’re getting a lot of good feedback from the chemical industry. It is quite surprising that they are embracing this so much, particularly if you look at how things have traditionally been done. But you also have the OECD chipping in and you have some of the really big movers that are now part of this game and that is very positive. We all see that we have to learn from the experiences from the past and they were not always good experiences. We need to re-establish the trust of the public to show that the chemical industry can actually handle some of these problems. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but something that will go on for a ten-year period or more.
ACHEMA Inspire: You also spoke of the importance of a civil society approach...
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: Yes, but the strategy in the chemical industry is already embedded. You have an alignment in terms of a round table involving the NGOs, industry and research institutes which are all closely involved. There will always be member states which are less interested but, when you look at the big players within the chemical industry like Germany and France, you see a massive involvement. And also within DG RDT [Directorate General for Research and Innovation] there has been a group established that will look at this whole system. It’s focusing on materials first and foremost, but it also covers the [criteria of] safe and sustainable by design. And in this group you have all the member states involved. You have them on several fronts. You have them both in the bigger working groups which are controlled by DG Environment and you also have them inside DG RTD so we can align the actions taking place all the way from the first principles: that means the fundamental research that needs to be done, the investment - also from the public side - right through to the implementation and the final verification that this actually works.
ACHEMA Inspire: You mention alignment. How important is that?
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: We need alignment of member states so we can agree on standards and future legislation. It’s a pretty crucial element that we get future investment aligned with legislation, otherwise it’s not going to work. If you are setting the goalposts too high nobody can reach them, the companies will say’ OK, who cares? You can’t make it - so why even try? The international collaboration goes hand-in-hand with this. As I said from the start, if you have some of the really big movers are setting - or trying to set - global standards, then it’s more or less inevitable that member states will align with it. We’ve seen that in the past with the Framework programme. You get a high degree of alignment with the things that we agree on.
ACHEMA Inspire: How encouraging is the response from other sectors?
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: First of all, the chemical industry is pretty crucial because they are sitting at the heart of the matter. We are talking about the transformation of materials and using CO2 as more fundamental base materials, that cannot be done without the sort of industrial symbiosis where the big energy-intensive industries are working together. But another area really crucial here is cement and steel. If they don’t work together with the chemical industry we are never going to get there. They are some of the biggest emitters of CO2 and other gases that may or may not be warranted in the environment.
ACHEMA Inspire: And are all those industries keeping up to speed with this sort of thinking?
__Dr. Søren Bøwadt: They are brutally aware of the situation. The CO2 quotas are going up in price quite dramatically. And if you look at the cement industry, they have nowhere to go as they basically have pure CO2 in their chimneys and they need to align with this. They can put it in the ground which may be the cheaper option in the first instance but in reality, in the long-term, it’s a more expensive solution because you are creating a pool of CO2 that is somewhere underground, stored instead of trying to use it as a potential fuel for other things for the future. But we cannot, from one day to the next, suddenly use all CO2 into, for instance, methanol or other base chemicals so there will have to be some sort of transition period where we are doing both. The steel industry is already moving big time in this regard. They know they are under really severe threats in terms of their business so they are already thinking about how to use hydrogen for reduction on the steel instead of carbon. But to be perfectly honest, the investments we are talking about are also really, really huge so we can’t do it straight away, which is why we therefore need pilots that can work these things out, and not only for hydrogen. As far as that is concerned, it may in the short term be the most promising for CO2 mitigation right now, but I think direct electrolysis of steek is actually a more promising option in my view.