The chemicals industry is one of Europe’s largest manufacturing sectors. As an ‘enabling industry’, it plays a pivotal role in providing innovative materials and technological solutions to support Europe's industrial competitiveness.
The chemicals industry produces petrochemicals, polymers, basic inorganics, specialties, and consumer chemicals.
The sector is currently undergoing rapid structural change as it faces major challenges, including increased competition from other countries and rising costs.
However, at the same time, the industry has recovered quickly from the economic crisis and has remained relatively stable in terms of total sales.
Importance of the EU chemicals industry
A competitive chemical industry supports the improvement of living standards, and generates employment and wealth. This fuels innovation and development throughout the economic system. The industry is a solution provider for many societal challenges, as well as other sectors. Furthermore, the EU chemicals industry:
- represents around 7.5% of EU manufacturing by turnover
- has sales amounting to €565 billion (2018), which is about 17% of global chemicals sales
- provides 1.2 million direct highly-skilled jobs (2015)
- creates an estimated 3.6 million indirect jobs and supports around 19 million jobs across all value supply chains
- has a labour productivity 77% higher than the manufacturing average
- generates a trade surplus of €45 billion (2018).
The chemicals industry is at the heart of the EU manufacturing industry as 56% of EU chemicals sold to downstream users go to other industrial sectors. Other important links exist with agriculture and services. The EU chemicals sector is very innovative and is a strong solution provider for societal challenges such as climate change, health, and nutrition.
New forms of industrial cooperation are emerging between chemicals and other industries, which help keep manufacturing jobs in Europe. An example is the cooperation between the agricultural sector and the chemicals industry in the production of bioplastics. The chemicals industry is also a strong driver of resource and energy efficiency.
Challenges the sector is facing
As an energy intensive industry, chemicals are dependent on favourable climate change and energy policies.
Furthermore, the chemicals industry is a highly regulated sector to protect the safety of workers, consumer health, and the environment. It is therefore subject to cumulative cost effects more than other sectors.
The EU chemicals industry is energy intensive and under severe competitive pressure. It faces challenges that include increased international competition, rising energy and feedstock prices, pressure to increase resource efficiency, new regulations, and the need for innovation.
- Access to raw materials and energy: To unlock the potential of sustainable chemicals, the EU chemicals industry requires fair and non-discriminatory access to biomass at competitive prices, as well as favourable legal and regulatory framework conditions. Although the chemicals industry generates growth, the European share of global production is declining and investment in new capacity is low. To encourage investment, the industry requires access to critical inputs (in particular, energy and raw materials) at competitive prices that reflect international cost conditions.
- Coordination between policies: This calls for better coordination between EU industrial, climate, environmental, and energy policies, and a better understanding of the cumulative cost effects resulting from these policies.
- Regulation: The sector is heavily regulated as regards health, safety and environmental protection, as well as climate change and energy issues. A stable and predictable regulatory environment for the chemicals sector is a key requirement for future competitiveness.
Chemicals strategy for sustainability
On 14 October 2020, we published the chemicals strategy for sustainability. It is part of the EU’s zero pollution ambition, a key commitment of the European Green Deal. The strategy will boost innovation for safe and sustainable chemicals and better protect human health and the environment against hazardous chemicals. This includes prohibiting most harmful chemicals in consumer products such as toys, childcare articles, cosmetics, detergents, food contact materials and textiles unless proven essential for society. It will also ensure safer and more sustainable use of all chemicals.
With concrete actions for safer and sustainable chemicals by design, the strategy will ensure that chemicals can deliver all their benefits without harming the planet, current, and future generations. Innovation and investment activities will aid the chemicals industry through this transition. The strategy also encourages EU countries to utilise the 'recovery and resilience facility' for investment in the EU chemical sector's green and digital transition.
What the Commission does
The European Commission launched a number of initiatives to foster competitiveness in the European chemicals industry.
It implements policies to facilitate structural change, e.g. the sustainable chemicals sector, which includes bio-refineries and plastics recycling, helps attract investment to Europe. It also helps reinforce the EU industrial base and encourages investment in research and innovation.
Structural change is also facilitated through cluster policies and the further implementation of smart specialisation regional strategies.
A High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the EU Chemicals Industry was set up and steps were taken based on its findings. These include making improvements to the regulatory framework (e.g. undertaking cumulative cost assessments and fitness checks on relevant regulation, and providing guidance and support on regulation to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)).
This section contains information on
- REACH Regulation
- EU chemicals legislation
- Classification, labelling and packaging (CLP)
- Specific chemicals (fertilisers, detergents, explosives, drug precursors, pyrotechnics)
- Good laboratory practice (GLP)
- Key players within the sector