Science & Environment

Savings needed to meet future demand for resources

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

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.

Image caption 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.

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