Are Belgian companies entering the digital age? Are they restructuring or opting for engagement and training? The results of a poll by BNP Paribas Fortis.
When Koen De Leus, Chief Economist at BNP Paribas Fortis, came up with the idea for his book 'The Winners' Economy’, released mid-2017, he started a study which indicated that 4 companies in 5 believed they already had a plan to prepare for the digital age, or had already taken steps. The rate was two times lower in the industrial sector, which this particular revolution is hitting more slowly. Where are we at now?
The majority have invested in digital technology
Digital progress is well underway in most companies. Over the past 2 years, 94% have expanded their information technology budget and four companies out of every five intend to develop it further over the coming years. This is good news even if, for over one third of companies, it is essentially just a source of extra costs.
In a positive sign after 10 years of continuous reductions in productivity, half of companies are seeing increased effectiveness once again: this is a good thing for the Belgian economy's long-term growth potential, emphasises Koen De Leus.
Nonetheless, opinions on the subject are divided. 33% of the companies surveyed still say that they are not yet ready for the digital revolution. The same goes, they say, for half of their suppliers and customers.
A source of employment?
Three quarters of companies say that they have engaged more with the topic in the past two years. However, there is a recruitment challenge, reportedly due to the lack of employees skilled in ICT.
Furthermore, one company in four says that they have carried out restructuring measures and cut jobs and that this will continue for many years yet.
It is clear that the educational system needs to adapt. Inhouse training is desirable to help employees acquire new skills. Over half of the companies surveyed have increased their training budget. Continuous training should help some businesses avoid losing out in the digital age
Regulation - mixed opinions
What about the effects on competition? Will digital giants reap most of the benefits? Will a new anti-trust law be a good thing ? 61% of companies think so. An additional 30 percent believe the law only needs slight modification. And then there are those who believe regulation should be relaxed further...
In the future, will we use CO² to build?
It sounds somewhat futuristic, but today building with CO² is possible. Thanks to accelerates carbonation, CO² is used to produce building material. A sustainable footpath in Ghent illustrates how promising this new technology is.
In mid-December, CO2 Value Europe, a think- and do- tank representing the carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) community in Europe, held a webinar about the use of CO2 to create building material. Concrete examples of this sustainable technology were given to illustrate the potential they can offers, especially in the hard-to-abate construction sector. BNP Paribas Fortis and CO2 Value Europe are partners in issues related to financing innovative and sustainable technologies. As an institution, we work hard to promote corporate sustainability.
The second-most polluting industrial sector
As well as being one of the largest in the world, the cement industry's high levels of flue gas emissions also make it one of the most polluting. Cement is a crucial component in concrete, which is vital for the building sector. A sustainable alternative to cement could make a huge difference. One option here is carbonation, also known as CO2 mineralization. While this CCU technology is not yet well known, it has the potential to play a crucial role in mitigating climate change.
Giving nature a helping hand
Carbonation is a natural process, where minerals react with CO2 to create e.g. limestone and dolomite. In nature, this process takes thousands of years, but today, thanks to innovative methods, this time can be cut down to some minutes. This process requires relatively small amounts of energy and can be used to create several different products, including bricks where CO2 is sequestered permanently.
CO2 all the way
The development of CCU technology has accelerated sharply in recent years. We now have cement alternatives that meet the building sector’s technical requirements. There are various ways to store CO2 into construction materials. For example, CO2 can be injected as an alternative to water for hardening cement. What’s more, CO2 can be used to convert mineral waste from steel and mining industries into new products such as aggregates, which can be used as a basis for paving or building blocks.
Good for the planet
Mineralization of CO2 has a significant impact on the environment, because it has an effect at different levels. The annual global reduction in CO2 emissions is estimated to be 250 - 500 million tonnes by 2030 (source CO2 Value Europe).
- CO2 can be captured from flue gas emitted by industrial processes used to create steel, cement, and chemicals, with no need for concentration or treatment.
- CO2 can be captured directly from the atmosphere to create negative carbon emissions, i.e. carbon removal.
- In both cases, the CO2 will be stored permanently in building materials.
- Mineral waste and even construction waste are used together with CO2 to make new building materials, so it reduces landfills and the associated costs.
- Recycling carbon and construction wastes means fewer new natural resources are exploited.
What’s the catch?
New developments are never without their challenges, and this is no exception. Offering a competitive, quality alternative to concrete in a circular economy requires investment and adaptation.
- Factories will have to adapt their plants. Locating them close to significant sources of CO2, like a steel factory, is recommended so the CO2 and the waste fractions do not have to be transported.
- Manufacturing new products takes energy and creates CO2 emissions, even if the products are made using carbon dioxide and waste. It is why renewable energy should be used as much as possible to increase the sustainability of the processes.
- The commercialization of accelerated carbonation technologies is quite recent, and some processes are not optimally equipped for this yet.
- The lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks is also a drawdown to allow for a fast deployment of CCU technologies. This is an area CO2 Value Europe is especially working on.
Despite these challenges, Andre Bardow (Professor of Energy & Process Systems Engineering, ETH Zurich) told us during the webinar that he is convinced CO2 mineralization reduces the CO2 footprint from a life cycle perspective, even more than carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Zero domestic waste
There are already companies producing low-CO2 construction materials around the world. One of them is in Limburg. Orbix, in Genk, has successfully extracted minerals from steel production waste (known as slag) which are used as a basis for eco-friendly concrete stone. Not only is liquid CO2 used to produce concrete stone rather than polluting cement, but residual waste that would otherwise be dumped in landfill is also recycled.
There is a great example of this in Ghent, where Orbix worked with the Flemish research institute VITO to create the Stapsteen project for the city. Visitors can walk on Belgium’s first-ever circular economy footpath in the Leewstraat: 100m2 made entirely from sustainable bricks, saving a full 2 tonnes of CO2.
Do you have sustainability plans for 2021? Our experts at the Sustainable Business Competence Centre can provide advice about innovations like CO2 mineralisation and support your sustainable transition.
Sunglasses that can help save the oceans
Yuma Labs makes sunglasses from recycled PET bottles. The Belgian firm has grown from a one-man startup into a company that manufactures items for other brands as well. But can the firm combine growth with sustainability? At BNP Paribas Fortis we certainly think so.
Yuma Labs (originally named YR Yuma) is the brainchild of Sebastiaan de Neubourg, explains his business partner Lenja Doms. She tells us: "Sebastiaan was working as a consultant, but he was itching to set up his own business. His idea was to use a 3D printer to make sunglasses from recycled plastic. He then found out at first hand why no-one had tried this before. Because it proved to be quite a bit harder than expected,” laughs Lenja.
By 2017 Sebastiaan had a workable prototype and he started a crowdfunding campaign for his sustainable sunglasses. It was an immediate hit. However, the project wasn’t first and foremost about achieving successful sales, reveals Lenja. “Sebastiaan saw the sunglasses primarily as a tool for making people aware of the basic principles of the circular economy. There’s no such thing as waste. A used Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle provides the raw material for a new product, such as a pair of sunglasses.” And to complete the circle, the customer is encouraged to trade the sunglasses back in at the end of their life, in exchange for a new pair at an attractive discount.
Sustainable manufacturing, as Yuma Labs does it, inevitably means that the final product is more expensive. “Fully twice as expensive,” Lenja points out, explaining: “We certainly don’t want to see the circular economy pigeon-holed as the province of the elite. We already take account of the entire life-cycle of a product, and we take responsibility for the recycling and re-use of the materials. And let’s be quite clear about this: that’s more costly than just putting a product on the market without worrying about what happens to it later.”
Aiming for growth
In summer 2019, Lenja Doms and Ronald Duchateau came on board the Yuma team. This provided an opportunity to broaden the focus and look further than the consumer market. This month, Yuma Labs announced a collaborative project with a major fashion company. This upscaling will enable Yuma Labs to reach out to a much larger audience.
A good mix
In order to grow, a business needs financial resources. Yuma Labs has looked into quite a number of possible solutions, says Lenja. “These days there are a lot of initiatives designed to support sustainable businesses – from banks, the government and private investors. We’ve always tried to find the right balance between our own capital and external finance, and to achieve a good mix of different forms of finance between capital, grants and loans.”
Lenja has a golden tip for other businesspeople in the circular economy: "All too often I observe that the economic side of the story is neglected because companies keep on trying to find the perfect solution or the perfect product. There’s no sense in that. You shouldn’t try to be whiter than white.”
Creating added value
At BNP Paribas Fortis, Maxime Prové is the Account Manager for Yuma Labs. He endorses Lenja Doms’ view on this. “Entrepreneurs who set out to do sustainable or social business must also have a desire to create added value, otherwise the business won’t last,” Maxime points out, underlining: “You can’t pursue a sustainable, environmental or social business model unless it’s underpinned by a profit-making scenario. That’s the only way you’ll be able to grow, hire more people and make a greater impact.”
Photo: Karel Hemerijckx
Joining forces for a low-carbon economy – our bank's contribution to CO2 Value Day Europe
The fourth CO2 Value Day took place online on 10 November. The event, which we helped set up as one of its partners, focused on the progress made in developing the CCU industry.
At BNP Paribas Fortis, we were delighted to help stage this event. The subject of carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) lies close to our heart as we strive toward a low-carbon economy.
About CCU and CO2 Value Europe
Carbon capture and utilisation encompasses all industrial processes aimed at capturing carbon dioxide – from industrial sources or directly from the air – and converting it into usable products. Today, carbon is not simply a waste material; it can be reused as a raw material for a host of applications, including building materials, fuel production and in the chemical industry.
CO2 Value Europe, a European organisation founded in 2017, aims to promote the development and market introduction of these sustainable industrial solutions and thus contribute to reducing global CO2 emissions and diversifying the raw material base away from fossil fuels and gas. The organisation brings together more than 50 companies from various sectors across Europe, including 12 multinationals. As its only financial partner, we support CO2 Value Europe by giving the organisation access to our expertise and network.
The CO2 Value Day is a unique opportunity for all members of CO2 Value Europe to assess the overall progress made in developing the CCU industry. This year, the event was once again a mix of plenary presentations, keynote speeches and interactive workshops.
After a welcome and introduction by Stefanie Kesting, Chair of CO2 Value Europe, Sebastien Soleille took to the floor. As Global Head of Energy Transition & Environment at our bank, he discussed the role banks play in supporting sustainable development. This is a responsibility that we do not take lightly at BNP Paribas Fortis, and we've been helping companies with their sustainable transition for years through our Sustainable Business Competence Centre. We focus on four pillars: decarbonisation, the circular economy, human capital and smart cities.
Vincent Basuyau, Policy Officer at DG GROW, then shed some light on CCU when it comes to current EU policy. This primarily concerned the Innovation Fund, established by the European Union to invest in innovative projects that decarbonise industrial activities in Europe.
The plans for 2021 were also unveiled. In the coming year, CO2 Value Europe will focus above all on the ongoing development of and market uses for CCU technologies. The aim is to coordinate the many different players involved in CO2 use in Europe, integrate their efforts into the value chain and become the ambassador of the CO2 user community towards policy-makers and financiers. After all, a favourable legal and market framework is a prerequisite for the commercial roll-out of CCU solutions.
CO2 Value Europe aims to encourage the ongoing development of CCU technologies by:
- offering solutions to decrease net CO2 emissions from hard to abate sectors, such as energy-intensive process industries (e.g. cement and lime mortar, chemicals, steel and other metals) and the transport sector;
- creating negative emissions in sequestering CO2 in building materials resulting from the carbonation of mineral waste;
- providing an alternative raw material for the production of chemical building blocks and to replace fossil fuels and gas;
- facilitating the storage and transport of renewable energy, speeding up the transition of energy systems in the EU;
There was also time for two break-out sessions, with the first focusing on developing a strategy to create a regulatory framework that supports the deployment of CCU technologies.
The second session concerned projects and financing. Aymeric Olibet, Sustainable Business Advisor at BNP Paribas Fortis, talked about a range of topics, including the solutions we offer companies through our Sustainable Business Competence Centre, financing sustainable projects through green bonds and green loans, and blended finance (a mix of public and private funding).
Finally, attendees had the chance to meet other participants during online speed meetings.
An ultra-modern sorting centre designed to recycle more plastic
Belgian firm Indaver specialises in sustainable waste management for industry and government departments. It is building a brand-new sorting plant to be able to sort and recycle plastic waste from the new P+MD rubbish bags.
Thanks to our ‘green’ loan with ‘green’ interest-rate hedging – a first in Belgium.
With the entry into force of the new EU Packaging Waste Directive, which calls for the recycling of more plastic waste, a new PMD rubbish bag is due to appear everywhere in Belgium by 2021. In the blue bags currently in use, you are only allowed to place plastic bottles, metal packaging and drinks cartons. In the new P+MD bags, however, you will be authorised to throw butter tubs, yoghurt pots, plastic wrapping, etc, etc.
New recycling techniques
“In order to be able to sort wastes from the new type of blue rubbish bag, you need innovative sorting centres and recycling techniques,” explains Karolien De Neve, BNP Paribas Fortis Relationship Manager for Indaver and its parent company Katoen Natie, adding: “Indaver is now building one of these new plants with our support. The company aims to sort 56,000 tons of plastic waste there annually, or 5kg of waste per person.”
‘Green’ loan for an environmentally-friendly project
In order to build the new sorting centre, Indaver obtained a ‘green’ loan from the bank. To do so, the project has to meet a number of specific criteria.
“We grant a ‘green’ loan only if the money is to be used for an environmentally-friendly project,” Karolien points out, underlining: “Clearly, the P+MD processing facility was an obvious candidate for this type of financing. Not only will they be able to sort a larger quantity of more complex wastes for recycling purposes, but also the plant will run practically 100% on renewable energy. Indaver works in an energy-efficient manner, keeping CO2 emissions as low as possible and following the highest environmental and quality standards.”
“During the lifetime of the loan, the company will provide us with an annual report on the environmental benefits achieved by the P+MD plant and will in return obtain the proposed interest rate reduction,” adds Karolien.
First ‘green’ interest rate hedging in Belgium
The loan that Indaver has taken out carries a variable interest rate. The interest payable is currently at a low level and is likely to remain so over the next two years. Nevertheless, there is a risk that the interest rate will rise in the future and that the company will then have to pay more. In order to hedge that risk to some extent, Indaver has opted to switch over after two years to a fixed-rate arrangement for a period of five years. This involves what is known as an interest rate ‘swap’. Moreover, instead of arranging a traditional rate hedge, Indaver opted for a ‘green’ rate hedge, thus stepping up its environmental commitment.
“We’ve linked the interest rate swap to a number of measurable ‘green’ conditions that Indaver has to meet,” explains Filip Moens, Head of Corporate Solutions at BNP Paribas Fortis, stressing: “If the company doesn’t meet them, it will have to pay a Sustainability premium. That premium wouldn’t simply go into the bank’s pocket; we have undertaken to invest the money in an environmental project. In consultation with Indaver, we’ve chosen a project run by Reforest’Action, an organisation that works to promote reforestation worldwide. Our chosen project is specifically geared to planting trees in Belgium.”
Working together for a better, more sustainable future
“As a waste processing company, Indaver plays a key role in the transition to a circular economy, which gives products and materials a second life,” points out Karolien De Neve, underlining: “This fits perfectly with the bank’s policy of working with our customers to build a better, cleaner and more sustainable future. We have the in-house expertise to do this, and by assisting with this project we’re confirming our commitment to positive growth.”