Savings needed to meet future demand for resources

Steel works, Turkey (Getty Images) The global steel industry accounts for 10% of the world's annual emissions

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Governments need to spark a lightweight revolution in the way things are made so the world can keep up with the demand for resources, say scientists.

They say homes will have to be built with less cement; cars with less steel; and gadgets with less plastic.

And it will need to be done in a way that radically cuts emissions from producing the materials, they add.

These are among the conclusions presented in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

Several papers in the journal tackle the dual problem created by the increased demand for goods as people grow richer and population increase, coupled with the threat of climate change.

One paper warns that unless demand for materials from UK primary industry is reduced, Britain will need the equivalent of a four-fold increase in nuclear power or a 40-fold increase in wind power to meet its target of a 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 from pre-industrial levels.

The paper, by UK government chief energy scientist Prof David MacKay, says readers can draw their own conclusions as to whether it is feasible to generate this amount of clean energy.

'Little incentive'

Another author, Julian Allwood, from Cambridge University, has been studying the five most energy-intensive sectors: steel, aluminium, cement, plastics and paper.

Landfill site (Image: PA) Societies need to become less wasteful in the future, say scientists

He says these already use energy more efficiently than other sectors because their energy costs are high - so there is a finite amount they can improve.

The answer is for society to demand less of the materials in the first place, he says.

“We can use much less cement in buildings than we do at the moment,” he told BBC News.

“The thing is that it takes more time to design buildings with less cement, and it takes more effort for builders. Labour is expensive and cement – relatively – is cheap, so there’s little incentive to change."

Dr Allwood added that the same thing could be said of car manufacturing.

“Engineers are constantly improving engine efficiency but these improvements are being swallowed up because people want to drive bigger cars with more acceleration.

"That is something that governments could do something about if they wanted to.”

One idea would be to set standards so cars could not accelerate so fast, or that the mass of cars didn't increase.

One tenth of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the steel industry.

Dr Allwood says that in order to meet CO2 targets, demand for new steel in the UK alone must be reduced to 30% of current levels.

The trick, he says, is to harness material efficiency so people can enjoy goods that are equivalent or almost equivalent.

A paper by Walter Stahel at the Product-Life Institute, Geneva, calls for "sustainable taxation" on resource-hungry goods to help the shift towards a "circular" economy where goods are-used and recycled.

He says this will create regional jobs, increase resource security, reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, increase material efficiency and prevent carbon emissions and industrial waste - all on a big scale.

Several papers have recently warned of the coming resource crunch. The UK independent think tank Chatham House said economies would be increasingly disrupted by often faraway disruptions in supply chains, and a report for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries warned that some pensions might be wiped out by shortages of resources, water and energy.

The papers also examine the use of energy and emissions from heavy industry.

The studies warn that even if radical solutions are found to reduce emissions from this sector, governments will still need to tackle housing and transport if they are to make the cuts deemed necessary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to have a good chance of staving off serious climate change.

Follow Roger on Twitter.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    The only thing on this planet in vast quantities is humans. At some stage there will be more wars and/or illness. The planet cannot cope witht the numbers

    Humans are destroying the planet - just listen to David Attenborough

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    The underlying cause of all increasing resource, environmental, and social pressures on our planet, is population growth, Until this is tackled world-wide, all the tinkering in the world with heavy industry, power generation, housing, transport, and trying to change peoples' behaviour, will not solve this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    It is not just changing habits and consumming less , this is only part of the equation . If less is used and last longer , then production and the need for workers is less . More has to be done to make new recycling industries , to create new jobs . And more important is education , not just public , but government and industry

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    @155. Graphis

    I do live in a dirty area, it's a total mess and drives me insane! I can't believe that I pay council tax to live here - and I'm sure i'm not the only one.

    Perhaps if you live in an area with no litter at all you should think twice about voicing opinions on how to solve the problems of messy streets.

    Your problem is somewhat akin to that of the government, you don't understand!

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.


    The number of people is no more than a distraction technique.

    The real issues are waste & over consumptiom. For ever person malnourished in this world there's a fat (insert adjective of choice) in the Western world. On top of that 30% of our food is thrown away....

    ....& that is just food, the same goes on with every resource.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Now we know, the future is not orange, it is black, but they are not saying anything different to what I & others have believed/said for years.

    The time is approaching where so much will change. Our great grand children will have LESS of everything that is taken for granted today, but it may be sooner.

    Choices we make today either make our blood lines suffer, or suffer less, you're choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    152. Agreed.

    The instincts of this movement are illiberal at best. One only has to look to the probs that have occured in China based on this policiy or to India's forced steralisation programme.

    It is only through economic growth that incentives to reproduce deminish.

    Thankfully I have 5 chidren although this outfit would clearly wish me to feel guilt for such.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    146. Yaldy

    Then you must live in a particularly dirty area. Maybe you're the one throwing your empty cans away:)

    Where I live, I'm hard pressed to find any litter. That's why I said it would have to be a good day to find 20 cans. I've just been out to my local shop, and I saw none at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Anyone want to give odds that any proposed changes will start with "Introduce a new tax on..."?

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Saving resources starts with good product design and the UK is fortunate in having good product designers. More products should be designed to be repaired not replaced with statutory minimum lifetime a manditory feature. Miele of Germany have proven you can design a washing machine to last ten years or longer but we also need better recycling Britain is still behind Germany.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I can't believe one of the editors picks is "one planet, one child". There are far fewer children in the Uk than there have been for a long time.

    If you genuinely believe the planet is overcrowded then surely the real problem is the ever increasing number of old people, consuming loads of resources but offering little or nothing in terms of return?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    We can't consume less until we change our economic paradigms. Capitalism demands continual growth (and therfore consumption) in order to provide a living to the poor, because disparity always increases. Without growth, with capitalism, the poor get poorer and more numerate. Thats the choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    "scare resources wouldn't even be an issue if less peopke were as greedy and self centred as you clearly are"

    Having a large family, or allowing mass immigration - the rest of the community have to go without - how is that any less greedy or self-centred?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    As previously stated by some HYSers, the solution is to make better quality longer lasting items. This of course makes everything more expensive so will be unpopular with manufacturers and consumers alike. We are trapped in our brave new world. It is going to take a lot more than a small country like the UK to lead the way. Buying British anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    There are billions of tonnes of resources in Australia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Canada... we've just found lots of shale gas. If you're going to put your opinion out Roger, at least have some facts. You say steel is in short supply? Soon Australia is going to become very wealthy from the coal they have found in their country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    142. Little_Old_Me

    The issue of scare resources wouldn't even be an issue if less peopke were as greedy and self centred as you clearly are by your own admission......
    @You don't get it, its not an issue, its a scam. Also linked to Agenda 21 - a power grab. Wake up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    144. Graphis

    You could find 20 cans on the street in half an hour if you looked (i'm not talking about city centres that are cleaned continually - working class areas where they clean the street once a week).

    Why do you think we are different to the rest of the world where people do this constantly - you go to Germany, Belgium, Spain, Australia (South) or the USA and waste has a return value.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    All bow down to the false god of climate change! As if we have the slightest effect! Whatever we cut, China will use many times over. We will all become slaves to their polution! Time to grow up & realise man has little affect on climate, it has change throughout history and will continue to do so when we are gone. Only the poor get denied, the rich get whatever they want. Time for the revolution!

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    129. Yaldy

    Assuming, on a good day, you could collect 20 cans off the street (remember, you said the street, not out of bins etc: there's others paid to do that), it would take you 6.8 months to collect 50,000, and that's working 7 days a week. It works out about £147 a month. Plus the danger of cuts and infections. I doubt you'd find anyone dumb enough to do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Finite resources vs. infinite demand; hmmmm

    Carry on breeding - you know it makes sense.

    Is it me?


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