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Manufacture Small Molecules, Business Practice, Digital Technologies

It’s Time to Calculate the Carbon Footprint of Pharmaceutical Products

sponsored by BASF

Sustainability is a challenge for us all. It often forces us to think differently about how we have always done things. My background lies in chemical engineering and, conventionally, this means scaling processes to very large volumes – but we are now at a time where we need to decouple volume growth with environmental impact. If processes and products are to have a lower environmental impact, we need to approach them from a new angle. For a large chemical company like BASF, which has eleven operating divisions and 700 production sites globally, the task of adopting a sustainability-first mindset can seem daunting. But it is possible.

As a key partner in a number of value chains, including raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry, BASF understands our role and responsibility when it comes to sustainability. In fact, sustainability is a core pillar of our business. BASF has set a goal of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with a 25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions achieved by 2030 (1). We put substantial effort into embedding sustainability into everything we do, including our business strategy, portfolio steering, R&D projects, manufacturing sites, and more. Discussions around more sustainable ingredients in medicines are on the rise among our customers – and also among patients – and we want to contribute to those discussions in an impactful way.

Sustainability starts with transparent data

To understand emissions tied to a production process – and where there are opportunities for improvement – high-quality data are essential. A few years ago, BASF began working on a digital tool that could pull raw data straight from our production sites (called “primary data”) such as electricity demand, waste generation, raw material consumption, and more, and use it to calculate the carbon footprint of individual products (kg CO2 equivalents per kg product).

BASF has around 45,000 sales products globally and, thanks to the development of this digital tool, we can now calculate the carbon footprint of every single one. The tool does this by using a standardized method (2) that takes into account emissions covered by “scope 1” (direct emissions; for example, from production plants), “scope 2” (indirect emissions from energy purchases), and “scope 3” (indirect value chain emissions; for example, emissions from raw material suppliers). The tool allows us to look at any BASF product, see a summary of its CO2 contributors, and even view the individual processes where the relevant emissions originate. This tool has been critical to steer our sustainability efforts. The data grant us the opportunity to review our operations, identify opportunities for change, and set priorities.

We can also take these data and contribute to the pharmaceutical value chain by providing transparency to our customers. Showing our customers how we are addressing our hotspots and the carbon footprint of their raw materials may help inform their own sustainability efforts. Today, it’s great to see many big pharma, generics, and even CDMO companies setting carbon reduction targets. Dozens of pharma companies have committed to the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) to align their CO2 reduction targets with climate science. Even health care systems are taking action – the UK’s National Health Service announced its ambition to be the world’s first net zero national health service, including emissions from medical devices and medicines (3).

Why should the pharma industry care about sustainability?

  • Healthcare accounts for around 4.4 percent of net global climate emissions (7)
  • Pharmaceutical products represent 20–33 percent of health sector emissions (8, 9)
  • The pharmaceutical sector emits around 55 percent more scope 1 and 2 emissions than the automotive sector (10)

The carbon footprint of ibuprofen

Scope 3 emissions typically make up more than 80 percent of total CO2 emissions for a typical pharmaceutical company – with around 70 percent of those scope 3 emissions deriving from purchased goods (e.g., raw materials) and services (4).

A key product in our portfolio is ibuprofen, which we produce in Bishop, Texas. Ibuprofen is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines and several tens of billions of tablets are consumed globally each year. We supply this important API to many companies, so we knew it would be impactful to deep dive into its carbon footprint and conduct industry benchmarking.

Although our digital tool allows us to understand our own product’s carbon footprint, industry benchmarking is also important on the road to net zero. For this effort, we worked with Ecovamed – a European consultancy that focuses on life cycle and carbon footprint assessments for the pharmaceutical and speciality chemicals industries. Ecovamed analyzed the different ibuprofen synthesis pathways and manufacturing methods, pulled data from patents and environmental clearance reports, and calculated the carbon footprints of the final ibuprofen ingredient. We gave them primary data from our process and they confirmed that BASF’s ibuprofen has the lowest carbon footprint on the market (5).

To date, our ibuprofen has a carbon footprint that is at least 30 percent lower than the industry average. This success can be partly attributed to the highly efficient production process at our Bishop plant, which uses several Principles of Green Chemistry (prevention of waste, atom economy, minimization of solvents, energy efficiency, reduction of derivatives, and catalysis), won the U.S. Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge (6), and uses 4 steps rather than the 5–7 steps that are more common among other ibuprofen suppliers.

Customers have given us positive feedback about the level of data we provide regarding our products’ carbon footprints, and many are interested in how they can incorporate valuable data into their own reporting systems and eco-design principles during product development. Furthermore, in 2021, BASF made the decision to license our digital product carbon footprint platform to software providers. Notably, the software providers have taken the solution to market independent of BASF, ensuring there are no issues with data confidentiality. I look forward to seeing which companies and sectors adopt the digital tool!

This is only the beginning

At BASF, we continue to examine how we can reduce our emissions. Just as scope 3 emissions are a significant part of a typical pharma company’s overall carbon footprint, the same is true for BASF; we create some raw materials ourselves and buy others externally. To help address these emissions, we have established a supplier CO2 management program. In short, we ask suppliers to calculate the carbon footprints of the raw materials that they supply to us and support them through the process.

We all have a role to play in embracing sustainability – no matter where we sit in the value chain. And the key to getting us all aligned? Good data.

Ibuprofen is a large-volume API, and the benefits of reducing its carbon footprint are tangible. The results of our ibuprofen work are exciting, both for drug manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon footprints and for consumers, who are increasingly interested in more sustainable products. We believe BASF’s detailed calculation of ibuprofen’s carbon footprint represents a case study of what’s possible in the pharma industry’s pursuit of sustainability. We hope it will demonstrate that these calculations can readily be made, and inspire other companies to think about their own products and operations.

For more information on product carbon footprint, contact BASF

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  1. Scope 1 and 2 emissions only; baseline year is 2018.
  2. ISO 14040:2006 and 14044:2006 for life cycle assessment. Aligned with ISO/TS 14067:2018 for carbon footprint of products and with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Product Standard [WRI & WBCSD, 2011]. Methodology certified by TÜV Rheinland.
  3. NHS England, “Delivering a net zero NHS.” Available at:
  4. Data based on BASF analysis of science-based targets and corporate sustainability reports from 22 companies in the pharmaceutical industry (2021).
  5. EcovaMed, “Ecovamed assessed the carbon footprint of ibuprofen, one of the main analgesics, and compared the processes of all main producers,” (2022). Available at
  6. US Environmental Protection Agency, “Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge: 1997 Greener Synthetic Pathways Award,” (2022). Available at
  7. Health Care Without Harm & ARUP, “Health Care’s Climate Footprint,” (2019). Available at
  8. P.-P Pichler et al., “International comparison of health care carbon footprints,” Environ. Res. Lett., 14, 064004 (2019).
  9. NHS England, “Carbon Emissions Carbon Footprinting Report,” (August 2009).
  10. L Belkhir, A Elmeligi, “Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major playors,” J. Clean. Prod, 214 (2019).
About the Author
Bailey Risteen

Global Sustainability Manager - Pharma Solutions at BASF

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