COP27: Why our planet needs a commitment on chemicals.

There is no doubt that with each passing day we are creeping ever closer to a climate catastrophe, for some it is already here. We have known about human-driven climate change since the 1970s, but COP26 in Glasgow, which Fidra were invited to attend, gave the world a stark reminder. One year on and with COP27 in full swing, are governments still overlooking pollution, failing to recognise the full impacts of the petrochemical industry and missing opportunities to protect the planet?

Chemicals & COP27

As leaders gather in Sharm El-Sheikh for COP27, the endeavour to tackle climate change has never been more urgent. Whilst progress continues with initiatives such as renewable energy and transport efficiency, one major player remains overlooked: the chemical industry. This year scientists warned that we have already crossed the planetary boundary for chemical pollution, meaning that current levels of synthetic chemicals and plastics threaten the planet’s ability to sustain life [i]. The Lancet Commission’s latest report attributed 1 in 6 deaths worldwide to pollution and the UN now recognises pollution as one of the 5 main drivers of biodiversity loss [ii], [iii]. Sustainable and effective chemical management must form part of our environmental commitments, and luckily for us, the UK has plenty of opportunities to do just that.

As one of the world’s biggest emitters of CO2, the chemical industry has a lot of room for improvement [iv]. A recent collaborative report by the Center for Global Commons, University of Tokyo & SYSTEMIQ determined that if the chemical industry were to shift to low-carbon, resource-efficient technologies, not only could it create up to 29 million jobs and double its turnover, it could also rapidly reduce emissions [iv]. Some estimates even suggest that by adopting approaches such as bio-based feedstock and carbon capture, the chemical industry could in fact become a net absorber of CO2 by 2050. However, others have warned that carbon capture is not yet a proven technology at the scale required, and feedstocks would need careful consideration [v]. For chemicals like PFAS that can last for thousands of years, the energy required for their production is just the start of their health and environmental impacts.

Which chemicals should be in use and how they are managed then forms another challenge. By some estimates, there is no data on the environmental impacts of up to 95-98% of chemicals currently on the global market [vi], [vii]. Known contaminants, such as flame retardants and the forever chemicals, PFAS, are already widespread in the environment and wildlife populations [viii], [ix]. We know that some PFAS can interfere with the immune systems of bottlenose dolphins and otters, and can cause neurological damage in polar bears [vii]. Flame retardants have been found in wildlife species across the globe, including UK gannet and otter populations, seals in the Baltic Sea, Antarctic penguins, flies in Japan, dolphins, orcas, porpoises and salmon populations, with documented adverse effects to behaviour, fertility and survival rates [viii]. And yet, both PFAS and flame retardants continue to be used unnecessarily in products commonly found in the UK [viii], [x].

The UK’s current management of chemicals does not have our planet at its heart, but there are opportunities for change. The upcoming UK Chemicals Strategy provides a platform for unique and rare occasions to enforce higher standards of environmental protection [xi]. These windows of opportunity, alongside ever-increasing demands for sustainability and mounting evidence of greener alternatives, means we are in a prime position to demand that the UK Government steps up. As the UK hands over its presidency at COP27, it is time for us to honour our commitments to protect the planet and reform our approach to chemicals.

To help secure this vision, Fidra, alongside 26 other health and environmental NGOs, developed 12 Key Asks of the UK Chemical Strategy [xii]. These include phasing out the most harmful chemicals, speeding up regulation of emerging chemicals of concern, and remaining aligned with EU REACH to ensure the most up to date public and environmental safety standards. If you’d like to find out more and stay up to date with important announcements, check out our website and follow us on Twitter.



[i] Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities. Persson et al., 2022.

[ii] Pollution and health: a progress update. Fuller et al., 2022.

[iii] The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. IPBES, 2019.

[iv] Planet Positive Chemicals – Pathways for the chemical industry to enable a sustainable global economy. Center for Global Commons, University of Tokyo & SYSTEMIQ, 2022.

[v] How the chemicals industry’s pollution slipped under the radar. The Guardian, 2021.

[vi] Screening for PBT chemicals among the “existing” and “new” chemicals of the EU. Strempel, Sebastian, Martin Scheringer, Carla A. Ng, and Konrad Hungerbühler, 2012.

[vii] Towards a pollution-free planet: background report. UN Environment Programme, 2017.

[viii] PFAS and the environment. Fidra, 2022.

[ix] Sustainable Fire Safety. Fidra, 2022.

[x] PFASFree. Fidra, 2022.

[xi] Principles for Sound Chemical Management. Fidra, 2021.

[xii] Reshaping our chemical future. Fidra, 2021.