UK emissions are currently expected to exceed the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but new research by the Green Alliance shows resource efficiency could give a major boost to government climate policy.
The government is considering a net zero carbon emissions target for 2050. But UK carbon emissions are currently projected to exceed legally binding carbon budgets in the 2020s and 2030s.
Government climate policy has been reducing emissions from running vehicles and heating and powering buildings, but it has so far ignored the huge source of emissions from how products are made and used.
Addressing this could reduce emissions by substantially more than other climate policies: between now and 2032, resource efficiency could save more than seven times as many emissions as the smart meter rollout and nearly three times as many as the Renewable Heat Incentive, according to the Green Alliance.
This would allow the country to meet the fourth carbon budget and reduce excess emissions in the fifth by nearly 80%.
Research from the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP), a collaboration of four UK universities, shows that action now to put less material into the production process and get more out of the materials used could cut UK carbon emissions by 200 MtCO2e by 2032 – equivalent to more than half of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions.
The analysis shows that five industrial sectors offer significant opportunities for improving efficiency, including:
- Construction: this sector is the biggest source of potential savings through measures like using lower carbon building materials and increasing reuse. Efficiency gains in this sector alone could halve excess emissions in the fourth carbon budget period.
- Vehicles: Major carbon savings could come from encouraging people to keep efficient cars, especially EVs and hybrids, for a few more years; the potential lifetime of a car is 20 years but the average car in the UK is driven for just 13 years.
- Food and drink: Avoidable food waste in the UK not only costs the average household £700 a year, it is also estimated to be responsible for 19 million tonnes of CO2 each year – equal to emissions from a quarter of the country’s private car journeys.
At the same time, becoming more efficient would make businesses more productive and lower their costs, which will be increasingly important to UK industries competing globally post-Brexit.
Germany’s Resource Efficiency Programme (ProgRess) has a target of doubling resource productivity by 2020. The report, published in partnership with Green Alliance, recommends the government follows Germany’s example, setting up sector specific ‘resource efficiency partnerships’ to speed up the identification of opportunities and spread innovation.
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance – “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.”
Baroness Brown of Cambridge DBE FREng FRS, said: “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.”
Professor John Barrett, director of CIEMAP, said: “Our research shows that resource efficiency is an effective and unexplored opportunity to bridge the UK’s emissions gap. 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.”
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, said: “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.”