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Taking climate action to the next level

How a plastics company became an environmental champion.

I am sitting in an office in Taipei with the UPF travel group as Renee, the lovely Corporate Communications woman at Covestro Taiwan is telling us how a chemical company can make a positive impact on the environment. With a slightly sceptical audience in front of her, Renee puts on a video, and the mood switches dramatically. Cameras are flashing. Two men are giving the audience ecstatic looks. They are shaking hands with people in suits. The camera pans in on a shiny aircraft. A man in an orange jumpsuit is sitting in the captain’s chair. “Finally in the air again,” he says and raises his fists victoriously. It is the future: it is Solar Impulse.

Solar Impulse is the airplane that made it around the world, 40 000 kilometres, without using a single drop of fuel, making it the first in the world to do so. The record-breaking solo flights executed by André Borschberg from Nagoya to Hawaii and Bertrand Piccard from Hawaii to San Francisco and New York to Seville made headlines for its use of technology. Solar Impulse are clear in their message: everybody could use the same technologies on the ground to halve the world’s energy consumption, save natural resources and improve people’s quality of life. Of course, Solar Impulse was also the perfect project for businesses such as the polymer (plastics) materials company Covestro, along with Nestlé, Solvay and Air Liquide to drastically improve their images in the eye of the climate activist.

André Borschberg and Bernard Piccard, the pilots that flew across the earth with no fuel.

The remarkable voyage of Solar Impulse was one of Covestro’s environmental innovation projects, along with Sonnenwagen (literally sun wagon), the solar driven car that raced 3 000 kilometres from Darwin to Adelaide without using any fuel. After facing tough competition as Covestro became independent from Bayer Science Materials, the company has worked hard to angle itself as a unique, colourful and, most importantly, environmentally friendlier option. Apart from the large-scale, flashy projects that rest easily on the eye, Covestro works with soft power and young people by organising science days, producing educational material on the environment and conducting other Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects involving people under eighteen – who are, of course, future consumers and employees. These actions place Covestro at the front of climate action in the polymer industry and push the company beyond what is expected of it.

Sonnenwagen attracted sponsors such as Covestro, Porsche and Huawei to join in on climate innovation.

“We know that we need to go beyond government requirements if we want to save the planet,” Renee Chan from Corporate Communications at Covestro Taiwan explained to the UPF travel group. Of course, Covestro is aware that such actions will give the company leeway in the competitive industry of polymer materials. But it is more than just that. Companies are becoming more aware of the fact that to survive, they must stick to their values through thick and thin and work with them in a genuine manner that permeates the entire business cycle. Companies can no longer afford to work with on-the-surface CSR that makes no real difference. And industries’ work for the environment has become increasingly significant. Since the climate conference in Copenhagen it has become clear that policies alone cannot save the planet, the technology to change the way we live must be there and ready to implement. This is where innovation through brands like Solar Impulse, Tesla and Covestro step in.

It’s best to get them young, as Secretary of State John Kerry showed when he signed the climate deal Trump would later back out of. The importance of private actions has since increased.

Working for the environment becomes even more important when you produce material from one of the most hated categories by climate action figures: plastic. Thus, Covestro made it a top priority to work towards optimising use of resources and, through innovation, bringing forth materials that can be produced without oil. Doing this, Covestro has been able to lower its greenhouse emissions by over 40 per cent in the last ten years. They also brought forth a coating hardener that comprises 70 per cent biomass. Instead of emitting carbon dioxide, the company also uses it as a resource for alternative raw materials. Since 2016, Covestro has manufactured a precursor for polyurethane flexible foam, 20 per cent of which is based on CO2 instead of crude oil.

Renee Chan from Covestro Taiwan and the author after sharing thoughts on climate action.

Working with rather than against the environment is not merely a good deed for the sake of humanity, but also a unique selling proposition in a highly competitive world where price is no longer everything: in summary, it is a win-win situation. In a time when legislators seem to mostly sit around and voters vote with their feet, companies like Covestro take the work for climate protection 10 000 feet above the ground. According to Covestro, the aircraft Solar Impulse will be able to fly commercially within a decade. The prospect of us all being able to travel across the oceans without Co2 emissions is a staggering thought. Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown, engines: on. The future is here, and there is nothing you can do.

Julia Bergström

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