Give us greater security on the resource issue

Decisions in a field as complex and slippery as resource efficiency/security need to be well thought out if they are to be effective, argues Matthew Farrow

Last week, a CBI conference on resource efficiency attracted two secretaries of state and the EU Environment Commissioner. We recently had the Commission’s resource efficiency roadmap and in February, are promised a resource security action plan from Defra. There is no doubt that resource efficiency/resource security has caught policy makers’ attention and is one of the current hot topics.

But when an issue rapidly climbs up the policy league table in this way, it is often because a range of quite distinct agendas have all found a home under its label, and this is very much true in this case.

First, resource efficiency can be cited in support of economic growth. Defra talks of its research identifying £23bn of potential savings if UK business used resources more efficiently, savings which could be used to fund investment across industry to boost growth.

But others see the issue more in terms of protecting our fundamental economic interests by ensuring that we do not become overly dependent on uncertain overseas supplies for raw materials. Use these materials less wastefully, so the argument goes, or recycle them within a closed loop system, and we need worry less about China or other countries cornering the market in a certain materials.

For still others, the value of resource efficiency is that it reduces the strain placed on fragile ecosystems by the relentless extraction, processing and transport of virgin materials. But in practice, the specific materials a resource efficiency/security policy should focus on, and how it should be designed, depends on which problem resource efficiency is the solution to.

It was notable that Vince Cable, at the CBI conference, resisted the temptation to tell the audience what they wanted to hear, and made clear that he did not see a danger of us running out of materials, nor much risk of resource depletion breaching environmental limits – although he did make clear that tackling ecosystem stress such as climate change was paramount.

Meanwhile, some of the Government analysis around resource efficiency focuses on capturing materials which have a high economic value but severe supply constraints such as gold in WEEE, while other parts of the analysis look instead at materials such as rare earths where geopolitical supply risks are seen as the key issue.

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) is working with the Government on this agenda and has been pushing the case for greater clarity of focus. We have also pointed out that the waste management companies will usually look to extract material from waste where it makes economic sense to do so.

For example, several ESA members are planning to extract palladium from street sweepings and so new incentives may be required if there are priority materials for which there is a genuine market failure.

The current Government tends to favour producing ‘action plans’ and ‘roadmaps’ rather than ‘strategies’ presumably because ‘strategies’ don’t sound decisive and action-orientated enough. But decisions and actions in a field as complex and slippery as resource efficiency/security need to be based on sufficient careful analysis and thought. Defra must ensure that’s its resource security action plan is not found wanting in this regard.

Matthew Farrow is director of policy at the Environmental Services Association

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