Landscape of the European Chemical Industry 2017

Landscape of the European Chemical Industry 2017




520.2 billion €

Number of companies


Direct employees


National contact


René van Sloten

Executive Director


A cornerstone of the European economy

The chemical industry underpins virtually all sectors of the economy and is closely entwined with its customers downstream. Rubber and plastics, construction, pulp and paper, and the automotive industry are all big users. Nearly two-thirds of EU chemicals are supplied to EU manufacturers or construction.


The remainder underpin agriculture, services and other business activities. The EU chemical industry transfers technology throughout the region’s economy.

Industry is the biggest customer for EU chemicals

The chemical industry generates 1.1 per cent of EU gross domestic product (GDP) – impressive, given the growth of service sector output.


Cefic supports the Commission’s goal for industry to contribute 20% of GDP by 2020. That’s a bold ambition, not an absolute target. Today, industry contributes about 15% of GDP, and industrial investment is declining. As investment in primary production falls, Europe is losing ground in technological capability, and European value chains are at risk.

EU chemical industry snapshot

The chemical industry is vital to economic development and wealth creation, supplying modern products, materials and technical solutions across the European economy. With 1.2 million workers and sales of €519 billion (2015), it is one of the largest industrial sectors and a leading source of direct and indirect employment in many regions.

Flagging growth

Though traditionally a leader in chemicals production and still outwardly strong, the chemical sector was severely affected by the 2008-09 global recession. After a rapid cyclical recovery, production has been growing more slowly than global demand since early 2011. According to Eurostat, output in the third quarter of 2016 remained 5.7% below its peak in the first quarter of 2008.


Asia rising

World chemicals sales were €3,534 billion in 2015, up 14.0 per cent from €3,100 billion in 2014. The strong recovery was largely driven by China, where chemicals surged 30 per cent, by value, to €1,409 billion.

Asia forges ahead

Europe lumbers

The EU chemical industry ranks second by sales, a whisker ahead of the United States. Including non-EU countries, total European chemicals sales reached €615 billion in 2015, or 17.4 per cent of world output. But China has leapfrogged Europe to top global sales ranking.


In 2015, sales from the 30 largest chemical-producing countries totalled €3,226 billion. Twelve of the top 30 were in Asia. Their €1,999 billion of sales contributed to top 30 chemicals sales and captured 56.6 per cent of world chemicals sales.

China dominates chemicals world rankings

China plans ahead

The global chemical industry landscape is changing fast. China has outlined an ambitious industrial policy for its petroleum and chemical industry in its “13th Five-Year Plan”. China aims to lead in technology innovation and trade to dominate international markets.

Though sales are up, EU market share has halved

The EU chemical industry’s share of world markets has declined in the past two decades. In 1995 EU industry sales were €326 billion – 32.3 per cent of world chemicals sales. EU chemicals sales have since grown by 59.4 per cent.


But worldwide, chemical sales have soared from €1,008 billion in 1995 to €3,534 billion in 2015. So the EU’s market share has fallen to 14.7 per cent in 2015. This “dilution effect” looks set to continue. Demand for chemicals is growing strongly in China, India and other emerging countries but slowly in Europe and North America, where Europe sells most of its chemicals.

A smaller share of a bigger cake

Losing competitiveness

A study of EU chemical industry competitiveness commissioned by Cefic from Oxford Economics (2014) blamed high energy prices, currency appreciation, high labour costs, and regulatory and tax burdens, among other things. Oxford Economics found that R&D intensity, energy prices and exchange rates strongly shaped competitiveness.


By 2030, world chemicals sales are expected to reach €6.3 trillion in 2030. But the EU chemical industry is expected to fall into third place, behind China, with 44% of the world market, and the US.

A shrinking slice

An export opportunity

Although competition in China’s chemical market is intensifying and demand growing more weakly, China still offers a huge and attractive market both for chemical suppliers and their customer industries. In the medium-term, European chemical producers are expected to benefit through increased exports or via local investments, thanks to their technological capabilities and innovative products, notably in consumer chemicals, automotive, electronics, food and nutrition.

The EU remains a net exporter of chemicals

Trading chemicals around the world stimulates competition, provides an incentive to develop new markets through innovation, stimulates production efficiency and helps improve the quality of human life. Historically a big exporter, EU chemical industry achieved a record extra-EU net trade surplus of €48.2 billion in 2013, though that reduced to €44.8 billion in 2015.

Trade agreements could open markets further

Trade agreements with key partners such as the US and Japan would enable our industry to enhance efficiency and better exploit our technical strengths.

Trading benefits

The flow of chemicals between the EU and its trading partners, calculated as total exports plus imports, was valued at nearly €248.5 billion in 2015. The US was by far the EU’s biggest trading partner in chemicals in 2015, buying €31.3 billion of EU exports, and providing €23.1 billion of EU imports – nearly 22 per cent of total EU chemicals trade in 2015.

Who buys what

An emerging US energy advantage

Transatlantic trade flows are expected to change considerably in the next five years, because the US shale gas boom has triggered a massive build-up of new chemicals production capacity there. Any EU-US deal would therefore need to contain strong provisions regarding access for EU companies to US energy and feedstock.


Narrowing the gas price gap with the US is especially important for petrochemicals and polymers, which have lost global export competitiveness in the past decade because gas, used both as a feedstock and to provide energy for crackers, can account for as much as 60% of operating costs.

Grasping Chinese opportunities

China is the EU’s second-biggest chemicals trading partner, accounting for nearly 8 per cent of EU exports. China has become the most important growth market for global chemical companies and a major investment location. Though Chinese chemical companies are increasing their focus on specialty chemicals, the country will remain a major importer of commodity chemicals for some time to come.

High energy costs undermine European competitiveness

The chemical industry is energy-intensive and competes globally. Anything that increases energy costs in Europe relative to our competitors has a major impact on competitiveness. Rivals in the oil and gas-rich Middle East, and more recently the United States benefit from advantageous energy and feedstock prices. The shale gas boom in the United States has greatly reduced the cost of producing ethylene, a vital chemical industry building-block.

Ethylene is the foundation for production of plastics, detergents and coatings. In 2013, making ethylene in Europe was three times more expensive than in the US or the Middle East. This is boosting profits abroad and attracting billions of dollars in investment, including from European chemical companies. Falling oil prices have reduced EU costs, but EU producers remain at a big cost disadvantage for producing base chemicals.

Regulatory costs hamper EU chemicals

EU legislation adds many costs for the European chemical industry, hampering its international competitiveness.


Under the REFIT Programme, the European Commission is evaluating cumulative costs arising from existing EU legislation, to better understand how legislation affects the sector’s international competitiveness, and help shape policy-making.

The Cumulative Cost Assessment (CCA) (July 2016) found that legislation cost companies in six subsectors €10 billion a year on average during 2004-2014. Regulatory costs were 12% of value added, and 30%, of Gross Operating Surplus (GOS), a proxy for profit.


The main drivers of regulatory cost are industrial emissions (33%), chemicals (30%) and worker safety (24%), together 87% of total regulatory costs. Costs ranged from 23.2% of value added in agrochemicals to 2.7% in plastics. In specialty chemicals regulatory costs were 16.7% of value added, for inorganic basic chemicals 12.1%, for organic basic chemicals 11.3% and for soaps and detergents 11.4%.

EU Regulatory costs doubled in a decade

During 2004-2014 compliance costs were driven up by the introduction of REACH regulations in 2007, CLP in 2008, investment ahead of Seveso III in 2012 and ETS Phase 3 in 2013. Energy legislation also contributes to the rising costs, especially after 2012.

And further compliance costs are in the pipeline

The chemical industry will face increasing costs to comply with stricter emission limits, more ambitious CO2 emission reduction targets and energy efficiency objectives. REACH costs will likely decrease after 2018, but complying with biocidal product and plant protection regulations will become more costly. Costs of compliance with workers’ safety and transport legislation should remain stable.


CCA is a tool to show policy-makers the impact of regulation on the competitiveness of the European chemical industry. Simultaneously, the European Commission is conducting a Fitness Check on Chemical Legislation and reviewing REACH. The aim is to ensure legislation is achieving its objectives in the most efficient way, and rectify any shortcomings without compromising health, safety and environmental protection.


Europe’s chemical industry needs a regulatory framework that is fit for purpose, consistent, cost-effective and which does not negatively impact its competitiveness vs other regions.

The ratio of capital investment to sales remains below its peak

Though investment in the European Union chemical industry reached €20.7 billion in 2015 the ratio of capital spending to sales, or capital intensity, at 4.0 per cent is still below its record level of 6.1 per cent registered in 1999.


Capital investment is vital to secure the future development of the chemical industry. It can add or renew capacity, improve productivity, underpin introduction of new products, achieve regulatory compliance or reduce operating costs. [1]


[1] (Source: European Commission (2009a), “High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the European Chemical Industry”).

Shifting investment abroad

A Cefic survey of major chemical companies revealed investment shifting to countries outside the EU between 2008 and 2013. The share of domestic investment fell 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2013, suggesting that the EU is becoming less attractive for chemical companies.


Chemical industry capital spending in the European Union reached €20.7 billion in 2015. That was 12 per cent of the €170.6 billion spent by the eight largest chemical investing countries, down from 30 per cent of investment by the eight largest a decade ago.

Chinese chemicals investment soars

Chinese chemical industry investment reached €95.6 billion in 2015, 56 per cent of total investment by the eight largest countries. Investment in the United States also increased. But the EU remained better-placed than South Korea, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil.

EU chemicals energy efficiency doubles

EU chemical producers, including pharmaceuticals have sharply reduced fuel and power energy consumption per unit of production. By 2014, energy intensity – energy consumption per unit of production – in the chemical industry, including pharmaceuticals, was 56.2 per cent lower than in 1990.


Further energy efficiency gains are subject to decreasing returns. Yet during the 24 years from 1990 to 2014 the industry increased output without raising energy inputs, lowering its energy intensity by an average of 3.4 per cent per year.

Enhancing environmental performance

Over the last two decades, the chemical industry, including pharmaceuticals, has made an enormous effort to minimise the environmental impact of its production. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per unit of energy used fell 48 per cent between 1990 and 2014. GHG intensity – the GHG emissions per unit of production – was cut 77 per cent from 1990 to 2014.

Please note that no figures are available for Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta.