Christian Kullmann is the Chairman of the Executive Board of Evonik

Prosperity and protection of the environment aren't mutually exclusive

In the public discussion, the problem is being painted as a struggle between industry and nature. Germany has to show that the two go hand in hand.

by Christian Kullmann

Talking about the weather used to be harmless small talk. But in today’s world, we need to approach the topic with caution. Public discussion on weather, climate, and crisis has deteriorated in many cases into a bitter religious war. We agree on one thing only: We all want a planet for our children that is worth living in. Unfortunately, that is as far as the consensus goes.

The problem is being painted as a struggle between industry and nature. The willingness to discuss issues objectively, without recourse to ideology, is vanishing. The result? A rash of proclamations and symbolic actions as well as more and more ideas for bans and sacrifices. Trust is being lost—not just in politics, but in industry as well. Yet industry is actually the key to realizing the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Instead of imposing bans, we need to foster innovation. If in Germany we cannot demonstrate that protecting the environment and the climate goes hand in hand with economic growth and prosperity, we will lose. It all depends on chemistry, because we are the engineers of the future. Without our technology, no wind turbines could turn and without our products no electric vehicles would be on the roads.

Those who preach sacrifice may seek to use their moralistic demands for bans as a way of forcing changes on our society—but that is certainly not going to make us a role model for the world.

»It all depends on chemistry, because we are the engineers of the future.«

While the community of nations talks, many companies have long since taken the initiative. We are consistently implementing our climate and sustainability strategy, aiming to be the engine driving solutions to the urgent questions surrounding our future. Our goal is more ambitious than the federal government’s plan for Germany: Evonik aims to cut absolute emissions by half between 2008 and 2025, and greatly expand sales from sustainable products.

To be precise, chemical production requires a great deal of energy. Completely switching our energy supply from fossil-based to renewable resources thus making it CO2 neutral, is technologically feasible. But that’s just theory: The amount of green electricity needed is neither available nor affordable. That is why we are researching and developing alternative solutions for our customers’ products, for our processes, and for the question of what to do with all that CO2.

Evonik already generates more than 50 percent of its sales from products that play a demonstrably important role in increasing sustainability and improving resource efficiency. Our additives make wind turbines and solar panels effective and long-lasting. Our silicon dioxide improves home insulation. Our materials in separators and cathodes make batteries for electric vehicles safer and more efficient.

But reducing CO2 emissions is not enough. We aim to incorporate CO2 into a circular economy and use it as a raw material. In collaboration with Siemens, Evonik is researching electrolysis and fermentation processes to make artificial photosynthesis a reality. We will use CO2, green electricity, and bacteria to produce chemicals—a technology that could one day be installed anywhere that CO2 accumulates.

Sustainability is our business

This example shows how important it is to invest in research and development—and to cooperate across industries. It would be a strategic error to celebrate those who sell electric vehicles while casting doubt on the very industry that makes production of those vehicles possible. What we need is a better understanding of supply chains.

Can companies be made climate neutral and stay competitive? The only way we can be competitive internationally is if we grow and are profitable. Growth is the key to everything. Our customers and our investors demand it of us. This is why environmental protection and sustainability on one hand and growth and profitability on the other cannot be seen as mutually exclusive.

Indeed, they are not. After all, being future-oriented is our business—it always has been. Thinking about tomorrow means maintaining a long-term view both of the environment and of the prosperity of future generations. In addition to addressing ecological issues, this also means making sure that the changes we will undoubtedly have to make are socially responsible. Our understanding of sustainability can be summed up in three words: planet, people, profit.

We aim to bring our expertise to the table as we move toward a more sustainable future. We have a great deal to offer. Yet as long as we are faced with an inadequate supply of competitively priced, environmentally friendly electricity and we are still at the research stage for alternative raw materials, we strongly object to being met with condescension and an us-versus-them mentality. We need public trust just as we need the support of political institutions. We have to work together to develop a sustainable economy with the help of innovation. Both in Germany and throughout the world.

photo: Andreas Pohlmann/Evonik


This article was published in the German newspaper "Handelsblatt" on December 19, 2019. Link to the German article

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