Resource efficiency fastest way to cut carbon emissions, new report claims
A new report is claiming that, contrary to current government policy, the fastest way to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions is to improve resource efficiency – addressing carbon output from the process of making and using products.
The report, titled ‘Less in, More out’, has been published by independent environmental think tank Green Alliance on behalf of the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP), a consortium of universities working with Green Alliance to inform policy around resource productivity.
Government policy tends to focus on the most obvious and direct producers of emissions, for instances vehicles and the heating and powering of buildings. However, this report states that bigger carbon savings can be achieved by a more indirect approach, looking at policies to improve how we use and reuse resources, ‘putting less in’ and ‘getting more out’ of supply chains than we currently do.
Libby Peake, Senior Policy Advisor at Green Alliance and the author of the report, explained: “The government recently announced that it is considering how the UK can become a net zero carbon economy. We can’t get there if we only target vehicle emissions and leaky homes. This analysis shows that reducing resource use is a new and powerful tool for governments wanting to achieve clean growth and net zero emissions.”
The Climate Change Act of 2008 sets a long-term target of reducing emissions by 80 per cent (from a 1990 baseline) by 2050. While the UK is currently on target to meet its first three legally-binding carbon budgets, government projections show that emissions will exceed the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (for 2023 to 2032). Moreover, if the UK is to meet the international climate ambitions set out in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, which aims for zero net emissions by 2050, clearly more needs to be done.
With this in mind, CIEMAP’s research reveals that by 2032 the UK could reduce emissions by almost 200 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) – the amount of emissions currently produced annually. This would be achieved ‘by designing products and buildings to use less material and making supply chains more efficient (putting less in)’ and ‘by lowering demand for new products by making them longer lasting and increasing reuse and sharing (getting more out).’
Strategies for reduction
Covering five key sectors – construction, vehicles, food and drink, electronics and appliances, and clothing and textiles – the report suggests how each of these areas can significantly cut carbon emissions by improving resource efficiency.
The biggest carbon savings are mapped out for the construction industry, with a potential reduction of 79.14 MtCO2e between 2023 and 2032, to be achieved by addressing the emissions created in construction and demolition, rather than just those stemming from ongoing heating and power operations. This could involve measures to encourage greater use of renewable, low carbon materials in construction, and cutting down the use of emissions-intensive materials like steel, which accounts for a quarter of global industrial carbon emissions.
Household food waste is also a key contributor to the nation’s carbon emissions. The most recent data from the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reveals that avoidable or preventable food waste is responsible for 19 MtCO2e every year, the same as the emissions generated by one in four cars on UK roads. The report thus recommends a target be introduced to cut avoidable food waste by 80 per cent.
In addition, the report touts the benefits of keeping items in active use for longer through repair and reuse, increasing the value gained from the resources used in manufacture: for instance, maintaining a car for its full lifespan (on average around 13 years), buying second-hand electronics or repairing items before replacing them and wearing clothes again instead of buying new items every season.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Deputy Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change, commented: “It is always tempting to see new technologies as the way to reduce emissions. It is easy to see the opportunities for both economic growth and emissions reduction from exciting new developments like electric vehicles.
“But this important report challenges us to address the less obvious, but significant opportunities that also come from using less and reusing more. And that doesn’t have to mean less economic growth. Using materials more efficiently reduces input costs, which will help companies create successful business models around longer lasting products.
Drawing inspiration from Germany’s Resource Efficiency Programme (ProgRess), which tracks resource efficiency towards a goal of doubling resource productivity by 2020, the report identifies three key actions the UK Government could take to boost efficiency at home:
- Establish sector-specific resource efficiency partnerships – setting up a dedicated programme like Germany’s, with a common method of measuring achievements, to work in partnership with key sectors;
- Demonstrate and disseminate innovation – sharing best practice and providing assistance to businesses developing resource efficient products and models; and
- Regulate where necessary – introducing sector-specific targets to reduce carbon emissions, initially voluntary and moving to statutory.
“Our research shows that resource efficiency is an effective and unexplored opportunity to bridge the UK’s emissions gap,” said Director of CIEMAP Professor John Barrett. “Looking beyond energy policies will also be needed if we are to achieve international climate ambitions, such as those set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. This is an important part of the jigsaw if we are to achieve net zero emissions.”
The report, ‘Less in, More out’, can be read in full on the Green Alliance website.