Innovative Session III

Tuesday, 7 September 2021
14:30 – 16:00 CEST

An Overlooked Giant – A Roundtable on Petrochemicals and Climate Governance

Chair: Frederic Bauer

Carolyn Deere Birkbeck, The Graduate Institute Geneva
Tobias Dan Nielsen, IVL Swedish Environment Research Institute
Alice Mah, University of Warwick
Diana Barrowclough, UNCTAD

In this session we will shed light on the petrochemical sector, its relationship to the fossil fuel extraction sector and to climate change, as well as map the interlinking regimes that make up fragmented global governance of petrochemicals and explore agency and the role of various types of agents in facilitating a low-carbon transition for the petrochemical sector. Thus, this innovative session is not only about highlighting the climate and environmental impacts of petrochemical sector, but also about how to govern societal and environmental transformations of this industry.

Petrochemicals include a range of products that our society depends on, from pharmaceuticals to plastics and fertilizers. It is the single largest industrial energy consumer with a demand for about 14% of primary oil and 8% of primary gas and the third largest industrial CO2 emitting sector. Petrochemicals cut across various value chains, yet are an understudied sector, and this is even more so the case in the context of climate change. This is particularly pronounced regarding to the role of fossil fuel companies in the expansion of petrochemical production. The tendency to overlook petrochemicals and their relationship with climate change is mirrored on the level of international governance. While public and private governance architectures addressing climate, agriculture, trade, development, investment and plastics all are relevant to petrochemicals, they hardly ever address petrochemicals directly and its relationship to climate change. Thus, the governance of petrochemicals constitutes a case of a governance architecture with a high degree of complexity (in terms of the number of regime complexes involved) but also with an “empty centre” in terms of no governance efforts directly addressing petrochemicals or their relationship to climate change. The complex and indirect governance of petrochemicals may hinder the societal transformation towards sustainability and thus need more attention from scholars in the ESG community.

Fredric Bauer holds a PhD from Lund University, Sweden, where he is holds a position as Associate senior lecturer in Technology and Society. His research is focused on low-carbon innovation and development in energy and emissions intensive industries. He has conducted extensive research on the plastics, chemicals, and pulp and paper industries, published in international journals and is a contributing author to the IPCC Working Group III AR6 chapter on industry.

Tobias Dan Nielsen is a Policy Expert at the Swedish Environment Research Institute (IVL). He has conducted policy studies on plastics and the petrochemical sector for the European Environment Agency (EEA), the German Development Agency (GIZ), and the Swedish Environment Agency. He holds a PhD in international climate governance from Lund University.

Alice Mah is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, with research interests in environmental justice, corporate power, and the politics of industrial transformation. She is the author of Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place; Port Cities and Global Legacies; and (with Thom Davies) Toxic Truths: Environmental Justice and Citizen Science in a Post-Truth Age. Her next book, forthcoming with Polity Press, is Plastic Unlimited: How Corporations are Fuelling the Ecological Crisis and What We Can Do About It.

Diana Barrowclough is a Senior Economist at the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), where she co-authors its flagship publication the Trade and Development Report. Her current research focuses on financial and industrial policy to support a green New Deal. She has a PhD in economics from Cambridge University and a BA from Auckland University.

 Carolyn Deere Birkbeck is a Senior Researcher at the Graduate Institute’s Global Governance Centre, where she leads a research project on the political economy and regulation of the global plastics economy and convenes its group of experts from IGOs, stakeholder groups, and academia. In 2019, she was awarded a joint Associate Fellowship of Chatham House, where her work focuses on a forward-looking agenda on trade and sustainability. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Global Economic Governance Programme.