By Dr. Amy Cannon, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Beyond Benign
I was asked recently to compare the carbon footprint of a green chemist versus a traditionally trained one. While this is impossible to quantify, it is certainly true that green chemistry training and skills can prepare chemists to better reduce their own impacts. More importantly, it gives them the skills to design chemical products that inherently address climate change. This is the part that excites me most.
Chemistry is often referred to as the “central science.” If this is true, then chemistry must also be the central science of sustainability. It’s chemistry that has the tremendous power to design in and out physical properties. So if we are talking about properties such as global warming potential (GWP), only chemists — through innovative, smart chemical design — can design out this property, therefore creating products that have inherently less (or no!) GWP. No other science can do this. Consumer behavior cannot do this.
This is something only chemists can do.
Green Chemistry: The Science of Tomorrow
Refrigerants serve as a good example of the power of green chemistry to address climate change-related issues. Originally developed in the early 1900s, refrigerants are essential enabling chemical technologies. Over the years, they have evolved from flammable, explosive, or highly toxic gases to highly stable (and persistent) chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which do not have the ozone-depleting potential of their CFC predecessors but still have high inherent GWP.
In the past two decades, chemists have developed new classes of refrigerants that address GWP through molecular design, creating refrigerants that have minimal or no inherent GWP. One could argue that chemists created the problem in the first place by creating refrigerants that traded off one hazardous property for another. Regardless, chemists necessarily have a lead role in the solution. The power of chemistry is tremendous – that is, if done through green chemistry.
How do we get more chemists trained with green chemistry skills? Education, of course! The better we prepare students with green chemistry skills, the better they will be prepared to use the powerful tools of chemistry to address global challenges — in the ways that only chemistry can. So while we may not be able to quantify the carbon footprint of a chemist, we do know that chemistry is essential to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and create a thriving, habitable world for our future.
We have a lot of work to do — now is the time to get involved! Check out the resources below to find out how you can join us.
- Discover our list of favorite resources for educators, both K-12 and higher education
- Learn about and sign the Green Chemistry Commitment for higher education institutions
- Register to join us at our monthly virtual meetings, Green Chemistry Connections
- Get our Green Chemistry curricula for elementary school to higher education