How AkzoNobel intends to reach carbon neutrality by 2050
AkzoNobel will need to embrace disruptive technologies such as automation and ensure the commitment of customers and suppliers to meet the paint and coating manufacturer's bold vision to become a carbon-neutral business by 2050.
That’s according to AkzoNobel’s director of sustainability Andre Veneman, who spoke exclusively to edie following the launch of a £100m paint factory in Ashington, North East England earlier this month.
Described as the most “advanced and sustainable” plant of its kind, the new centre of production for AkzoNobel’s flagship brand Dulux is expected to double current UK production levels to 200 million litres per year.
The Ashington plant uses a variety of renewable energy sources, including photovoltaic cells and a biomass boiler, alongside an automated manufacturing process, which will help to reduce the carbon footprint per litre of paint produced by 50% compared to the facilities it is replacing.
Commenting on the “extraordinary potential” for automation to boost sustainable production, Veneman said: “Thanks to developing this kind of innovative technology, it’s easier to develop our new painting and coatings plants or to redevelop and improve existing plants.
“When we look at automation, the first thing we look at is how we can use it to upgrade our own operations. For a manufacturing company, automation provides many opportunities to become a better and more effective company, and also a cleaner company, with less waste and higher resource productivity.”
Veneman cited other examples of automation processes undertaken by AkzoNobel, such as the use of drone technology to help customers in the shipping sector inspect coatings and corrosion on marine structures and take the most efficient shipping route. He says that customers can subsequently optimise the application of AkzoNobel’s innovative range of biocide-free marine coatings, which has helped ship owners save 10 million tonnes of fuel and 32 million tonnes of CO2.
This type of innovation will be a crucial element in driving AkzoNobel’s commitment to lead the paint industry in accelerating a resource efficient, low-carbon future. Earlier this month, AkzoNobel returned to the top of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) in the chemicals industry group, fending off 140 competitors for the accolade.
Veneman pointed to the progress being made in the transition to bio-based chemical products and sourcing of renewable energy – which grew to a 40% share of AkzoNobel’s energy consumption last year - as examples of how the company is helping to transform the industries in which it operates.
He also acknowledged the importance of ensuring that employees from all areas of the business are on board with overarching sustainability efforts.
“We are careful to explain to employees that it is not the silly thing about being number one, two or three on the index,” Veneman said. “We believe that it is the best benchmark tool because it covers so many areas around social, environmental and governance. Many people in our company our involved in these issues, from taxation and corporate governance, to marketing and procurement.
“We have distributed and identified the topics where we want to improve and lead the chemicals sector and we have used it as a tool to inform many people in our business and therefore every year it takes a significant effort to ensure that we are leading and at the top.”
AkzoNobel is aiming to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Veneman explains that concrete steps are in place to ensure that this ambitious target is met. This includes a short-term ambition to reduce its product cradle-to-grave carbon footprint by 25-30% between 2012 and 2020.
A brief glance at the company’s latest CSR report shows that by the end of 2016 this figure sat at only 6%. With progress clearly still to be made, Venemen admits that “very strong actions” will be required to ensure that customers and suppliers move along on the same trajectory as Akzonobel’s own business operations.
“We set ourselves a very ambitious target,” he said. “In retrospect, we say it is really ambitious and it is because we said that the reductions we make in our factories, we should also make with our suppliers and key customers, because in effect we are part of the same value chain.
“It requires very strong actions,” he said. “Especially In North America, Europe and Asia, where we clearly express key agreements with our suppliers, where we expect them to make a greater contribution to our cradle-to-grave reductions.
“We first had to explain to suppliers that this is not a headache or environmental crusade. No, this is part of strengthening our business. We are convinced that if we drive energy efficiency, resource efficiency across our supply chain, we will become a better business.”
'Dare to dream'
Innovative products and services are offered to clients in industry sectors such as building, infrastructure and transportation to reduce their energy use and carbon impact. For instance, AkzoNobel recently created an industry-first carbon credit scheme, aimed at financially rewarding shipping vessel operators for emitting less CO2.
And two years ago, the firm began making Power Purchasing Agreements (PPAs) in European countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands, working with customers and a consortium of firms including Google, Philips and DSM to purchase green electricity from two new wind parks.
With plans to expand PPA projects to China, India and North America, Veneman forsees that upcoming programmes will enable AkzoNobel to secure renewable energy below grid price. He also envisages that excess energy will give the company freedom to explore new sustainable projects, from producing hydrogen for the fuel cell industry to building new chemical products such as synthetic gas.
So how confident does Veneman feel that the company will achieve its cradle-to-grave targets, and ultimately sustain its pathway towards carbon-neutrality?
“It’s too early to say if we are going to achieve this really ambitious challenge,” he said. “It will be a headache, it will be a challenge. It’s 2017, and today we don’t give up. We can see pathways. We can do it, we can move faster in our own operations. And there is no excuse not to work with our suppliers and customers to make this change happen.
“Interestingly, we have seen that it does not need to become more difficult – it will actually become easier to move towards renewable energy. Five years ago we would say ‘now we are at 30% renewable energy, but with the high cost, how can we increase this share?'
"But now we are able to get renewable energy at grid price. So now we dare to dream about accelerating the pace of renewable energy and have a much bigger share from wind parks at land and sea because it can generate a transition in our industry.”