As the UK government lobbies to host crucial UN climate talks in 2020, it can rightly claim to have demonstrated leadership on this pressing global issue. We were the first country in the world to set legally binding budgets for carbon. We have shown it’s possible to grow our economy while reducing emissions to meet the first three legally binding carbon budgets. And we are preparing to go further: climate change minister Claire Perry recently indicated that she wants the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which sets the budgets, to investigate a target for net zero emissions by 2050.
This will no doubt be music to the ears of those invested in the UN process. The evidence suggests net zero is exactly what we need to achieve if we’re going to meet the commitments we made in the landmark Paris climate agreement.
But, there’s a problem. While the UK is on course to meet the first three carbon budgets set by the CCC, the picture is not so rosy for the fourth and fifth, which take us from 2023 to 2032. Despite all existing and planned UK climate policies – including those in the Clean Growth Strategy – we are still on course to exceed legally binding emissions limits. If we’re to have any chance of meeting them – let alone reaching net zero emissions by 2050 – we must now find new policies to achieve more substantial savings than those already tried.
Resource efficiency is a no brainer
Luckily, researchers at the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP) have identified one, and it’s a no brainer: resource efficiency. This is an area that has been overlooked by climate policy, which has so far focused on renewable energy and emissions generated by running vehicles and heating and powering buildings.
But how we manufacture and use goods has a big impact on emissions. By designing products and buildings to use less material and making supply chains more efficient, we can reduce resource use and its associated emissions. This can also be achieved by making products last longer and increasing reuse and sharing. In a nutshell, we need to put less in and get more out.
CIEMAP’s findings, published today in partnership with Green Alliance, show that improving resource efficiency in just five key sectors – construction, vehicles, food and drink, electronics and appliances, and clothing and textiles – could cut domestic carbon emissions by nearly 200 MtCO2e by 2032. This level of saving is equivalent to more than half of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions.
The construction sector alone offers the biggest savings. While the industry has already reduced its operational emissions by 32 per cent since 1990, embodied emissions, generated in the production process, have only dropped by six per cent. This could be changed through measures like substituting high carbon building materials like steel and concrete for lower carbon materials like timber for relevant applications and by reusing more materials, including structural steel. The research shows that efficiency gains made in this sector could halve the projected overshoot in emissions for the fourth carbon budget period (2023-27).
BEIS and Defra need to work together with industry
In some ways, it makes sense that the government has so far overlooked this potential, as there are two different departments responsible for climate policy and resources: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) respectively.
But the strategies of the two departments are starting to align, with a new overarching target to double resource productivity by 2050 making it into the government’s 25 year plan for the environment, BEIS’s Industrial Strategy and Defra’s forthcoming resources and waste strategy. With this focus on a single measure that compares economic output and resource input, there’s more incentive than ever for the two departments to work together to meet each of their goals.
Advantages go beyond carbon saving
Using resources more effectively will also benefit businesses and the wider economy. It will improve economic competitiveness and expand the opportunities for UK businesses to export resource efficient products and services to a growing international market. As well as working across departments, the government should also work with businesses to overcome the barriers to better resource use, such as lack of expertise and strategic foresight, and poor price signals which fail to adequately value resources.
As different industries have their own specific barriers to better material use, we recommend that the government sets up sector specific ‘resource efficiency partnerships’. These would agree benchmarks, identify and spread innovation on resource efficiency and start the drive to make sure the most is made of this major opportunity to cut UK carbon emissions.
Resource efficiency is the next frontier for UK climate policy and tackling it will further bolster the government’s claim to global climate leadership. With the latest round of UN talks stalling due to a general lack of leadership and limited action to meet the agreements from the Paris agreement, this is exactly the action we need to see now.