You can’t reach net zero without resource efficiency

Earlier this week, the climate minister, Claire Perry, asked the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to investigate a pathway for the UK to become a net zero emissions economy. This followed the publication of a major International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warning that the world must make deep cuts in carbon emissions. These, the scientists say, are necessary to keep warming below 1.5 degrees and ensure the planet remains inhabitable for future generations. For this to be possible, it’s clear that the UK’s, and the rest of the world’s, pathway to these deep cuts has to include resource efficiency.

Net zero means all sectors will have to respond to the challenge. For some, improvements in energy efficiency will not be enough, meaning we need to consider how products can be made and used more efficiently.

As part of our partnership with the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP), we published Less in, more out: using resource efficiency to cut carbon and benefit the economy earlier this year. By resource efficiency, we mean using and losing fewer materials throughout production processes and then getting more use out of products to keep embodied emissions (and overall resource use) down. Adopting this approach in just five key sectors, the report showed, would allow the UK to meet its fourth carbon budget, come close to meeting its fifth, and put the country firmly on track towards net zero.

The scope for savings is huge
But the resource efficiency savings we identified are just the beginning of the story. The true potential of using resources more efficiently across the economy is far greater. For an idea of the scale of opportunity, in Less in, more out CIEMAP’s researchers looked at five sectors: construction; vehicles; food and drink; electronics and appliances; and clothing and textiles. For each, they modelled the possible savings from specific resource efficiency measures. When it came to food, for instance, they looked at what reducing waste in the hospitality sector and from households could achieve. However, food waste at the retail and manufacturing stages, which wasn’t part of the study, would offer scope for many more additional carbon savings. Indeed, for all the sectors analysed, which already demonstrated considerable savings, there are more carbon savings possible and, once we start the journey to resource efficiency, even more are likely to arise.

And, of course, there are other sectors where resource efficiency could improve both material use and carbon emissions in the same way as the sectors covered in our report. In fact, Defra recently published another report by CIEMAP looking at the development of carbon based metrics to measure resource efficiency. As part of their investigation, the researchers found that just 30 sectors, out of 106 defined in the UK economy, accounted for 80 per cent of the UK’s material and carbon footprints. As well as the sectors covered in Less in, more out, other sectors worth investigating for resource efficiency include waste collection and treatment, agriculture, forestry and fishing.

Small country, big impact
A perhaps surprising fact is that, if the UK were to achieve resource efficiency savings across all these sectors, the impact on carbon reductions in the rest of the world would actually be much greater. CIEMAP has shown that, of the roughly one billion tonnes of raw materials used throughout the global supply chains that meet final UK demand, more than 80 per cent are sourced outside the UK. An increasing share is coming from places like India and China.

One of the unhelpful quirks in how carbon and, to a lesser extent, resource use are measured at an international level is that countries are only held accountable for the emissions and extraction that occur within their borders. This provides countries with a perverse incentive to ‘offshore’ their emissions, but it also provides the UK with a real opportunity to have a much bigger impact.

Just considering the resource efficiency measures outlined in Less in, more out, for instance, the carbon savings at the global level would be more than double those that occur in the UK.

Speaking on the Today programme the morning the IPPC report was launched, John Humphrys observed “It’s the great industrial countries, it’s the United States, it’s China, it’s India and so on – the big countries with vast populations – that are going to determine where climate change goes.” He’s doubtless not alone in that view, with others wondering what real impact the UK can have by decarbonising its economy.

We have had some fantastic successes in cutting carbon while growing our economy, by phasing out coal, increasing renewables and making buildings and vehicles more efficient. All this needs to continue. But one of the great advantages of achieving carbon savings from resource efficiency is that they extend well beyond our borders. It’s a real opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global climate leadership, which, as the IPCC report stressed, is what we really need right now.

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