Research from four universities and Green Alliance argues UK climate policy has ignored resource use, but better manufacturing and design could help the government meet upcoming carbon budgets
More efficient resource use and better product design across manufacturing and industry has largely been largely "ignored" in climate policy, yet new research today suggests it could play a key role in tackling the current shortfall in CO2 cuts needed to meet UK climate targets, while boosting the economy in the process.
A study led by four UK universities calculates action taken now to put less materials into the production process and get more value out of the materials used could cut UK greenhouse gases by as much as 200 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2032, equating to more than half the country's entire annual emissions.
At present, UK emissions are projected to exceed the fourth and fifth carbon budgets that cover the years from 2023 to 2032, and the government is facing growing criticism over its failure to set out decarbonisation policies which would make up the short fall. Yet despite the current 'emissions gap', Ministers recently suggested the government is considering setting an even more ambitious long term net zero emissions target, which would mean even deeper cuts in CO2 than the current carbon budgets require.
Today's report argues the emissions gap could be closed and deep decarbonisation achieved more effectively if there was a much bigger policy focus on resource efficiency. Indeed, resource efficiency measures could potentially save seven times more emissions as the UK's smart meter rollout promises, and almost three times as much as the Renewable Heat Incentive policy, the research suggests.
Overall, it argues maximising the opportunity from more resource efficiency production across construction, vehicle manufacture, food and drink production, and electronics and appliances would allow the country to both meet the fourth carbon budget and tackle almost 80 per cent of the projected emissions gap in the fifth carbon budget.
Moreover, with the UK economy suffering from low productivity compared to many of its European neighbours, more efficient resource use would make businesses more productive and lower their costs, delivering a significant boost to the UK's post-Brexit competitiveness.
The research was undertaken by the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP), which brings together the Universities of Bath, Cardiff, Leeds, and Nottingham Trent. Professor John Barrett, director of CIEMAP, said resource efficiency was "an important part of the jigsaw if we are to achieve net zero emissions".
"Our research shows that resource efficiency is an effective and unexplored opportunity to bridge the UK's emissions gap," said Barret. "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."
The report analyses the five aforementioned industrial sectors, which it highlights as having the most significant opportunities for improving efficiency. The biggest prospective saving is in the construction sector, which alone has the potential to halve excess UK emissions in the fourth carbon budget period through measures such as using lower carbon building materials and increasing reuse. The report estimates better resource use in construction could cut carbon emissions by as much as 46Mt of CO2 between 2028 and 2032.
Construction industry body the Federation of Master Builders, however, declined to comment on the findings.
Other recommendations in the report include encouraging motorists to hang on to more efficient cars - especially electric vehicles and hybrids - instead of trading them in several years earlier than necessary, and a concerted effort to drastically cut household food waste, which is estimated to be responsible for 19 million tonnes of CO2.
In response, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) reiterated the UK's success in growing the economy while cutting emissions by over two thirds in recent decades. Official also pointed to last year's Clean Growth Strategy, which aims "to cut emissions while keeping costs down for consumers, creating good jobs and growing the economy."
A spokesperson for Department added that the government's construction sector deal is set to be launched shortly and will be backed by £170m state funding. It is expected to help boost efficiency and innovation across the industry, as part of its total £2.5bn investment in low carbon innovation to 2021.
But Baroness Brown of Cambridge, who sits in the House of Lords and is a member of the Committee on Climate Change, said the report showed there were plenty of ways to drastically reduce greenhouse gases without requiring high tech solutions.
"It is always tempting to see new technologies as the way to reduce emissions," said the crossbench peer, who is also the UK's Low Carbon Business Ambassador. "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."
In order to realise the opportunities for decarbonisation via better resource efficiency, the report recommends the government work with industry to set up sector specific 'resource efficiency partnerships' to help identify best practices, develop data reporting metrics, and spread low carbon innovation.
And, once a clear system of reporting and identifying best practice has been established, it suggests the government consider implementing sector-specific targets, which if necessary could be made statutory. As an example, it points to Germany's Resource Efficiency Programme - ProgRess - as a policy model which has a target of doubling resource productivity across the country's economy by 2020.
Roz Bulleid, head of climate and environment policy at manufacturing body EEF, said the group would welcome moves to bring climate policy and resource policy closer together, arguing that to date the two approaches "haven't been all that joined up". However, she suggested doing so would be by no means easy with many other wider implications to consider, such as the danger of simply pushing UK emissions further down the supply chain to other countries.
"There is definitely an opportunity to integrate them [resource and climate policy] further, although that might sometimes be quite technically challenging in reality, for instance there may be safety challenges around reuse of electrical goods," Bulleid told BusinessGreen. "Policy shouldn't just be about resource use domestically either - the figures recently released by Defra on the UK's greenhouse gas footprint show that actions to reduce domestic emissions since 1990 continue to be partially offset by emissions associated with imported goods. There is a challenge here around more sustainable consumption but also avoiding the offshoring of our environmental impacts."
She also raised concerns that adding more requirements for manufacturers to report resource metrics could be "enormously burdensome" when many are already well aware of the volumes of materials they use and the impact on their bottom lines.
"We would encourage policymakers to look at collaborative and supportive measures that work with manufacturing and its customers, and embrace emerging technologies, to facilitate more resource efficiency, and avoid resource policies that could drive similar trends," she added.
The scale of meeting the UK's current statutory target to cut CO2 by 80 per cent by 2050 from 1990 levels is already clearly a challenge for the government, which despite releasing its Clean Growth Strategy last year still has gaps in its decarbonisation policies for the 2020s and 2030s. The rapid phase out of coal power in the UK and impressive progress on renewables has demonstrated deep and swift decarbonisation is possible, but such progress is proving hard to replicate beyond the power sector and the government will have to soon find other areas to cut emissions - particularly if it is looking to up its ambition and make the UK a net zero emission economy by 2050.
As Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, pointed out, the government still has a mountain to climb on climate change, and "we can't get there if we only target vehicle emissions and leaky homes".
Yet, with the public more attuned to the impact of waste on the environment thanks to Sir David Attenborough, companies responding with more ambitious and collaborative resource initiatives, and the UK economy struggling with a productivity problem, ministers and business figures may well see resource efficiency as the next area that is ripe for popular and effective green policymaking.
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