Report: UK must halve resource consumption to tackle climate change and nature loss

If the UK set a legally binding target to halve resource consumption by 2050, it could put itself on track to meet domestic nature and climate targets while also driving progress abroad.

Previous Ellen MacArthur Foundation research concluded that 45% of global annual emissions are linked to resource consumption

Previous Ellen MacArthur Foundation research concluded that 45% of global annual emissions are linked to resource consumption

That is the key finding of a new report from think tank Green Alliance. Published today (29 March), the report is entitled ‘Targeting success: Why the UK needs a new vision for resource use’.

The report outlines how the UK consumes natural resources at more than twice the rate considered sustainable. This calculation accounts for both finite resources, like fossil fuels, and renewable resources including plant-based materials from fast-growing crops.

It highlights how reliant the UK is on imported resources, which come with embedded carbon from transport emissions and are often associated with emissions and nature loss abroad. On the latter, the report notes the IPCC’s assertation that resource use has fuelled 90% of nature loss globally to date, with agri-food alone responsible for 75% of deforestation by area size.

The report argues that the UK’s learnings from the low-carbon transition since the 1990s, and from the implementation of the legally binding net-zero target, should be applied to policymaking on resources. It calls for Ministers to set a binding target to halve resource use across renewable and finite resources, from the UK and from abroad. Such a target would be the first of its kind from a developed nation and would send a strong message ahead of the G7 Summit in Cornwall and COP26 in Glasgow, the report states.

“An overarching target would focus attention across the economy on the incentives, behaviours, business models, and physical and logistical infrastructure needed for better resource management, rather than piecemeal interventions,” Green Alliance said in a statement,

“As businesses recover from the impacts of the pandemic, a clear plan will provide near term certainty and a stable policy environment to encourage circular business models and enable cost savings from resource efficiency.”

The report goes on to outline how a long-term target to halve resource consumption could be supported with interim targets for specific sectors – particularly those that are dependent on finite resources and those expected to grow as decarbonisation continues. Critical metals and minerals are flagged as a focal point here.

Sector-specific targets should also be backed up by targeted incentive policies in the short-term and, in the long-term, the report warns that some resources may become more expensive as they become more scarce and as their full environmental and social costs are factored in.

“Ministers need to stop clutching at plastic straws,” Green Alliance’s head of resource policy Libby Peake said. “The UK’s unsustainable resource use is bigger than that. An ambitious target is necessary to focus minds on reducing our consumption to sustainable levels, just like net-zero has done for climate action.”

Peake notably wrote the foreword to edie’s recent report detailing how businesses can contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption. You can access that free report, hosted in association with Rio ESG, here.

WRAP report

WRAP has also published a report on the intersections between the low-carbon transition and resource management this week.

Produced as part of a partnership with Leeds University’s Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), the report outlines how the UK could cut its annual emissions by 100 million tonnes within ten years by improving resource efficiency. By 2050, some two billion tonnes of CO2e could be avoided.

To achieve these levels of saving, the report states, the UK needs stronger policy and business action on sustainable sourcing and waste prevention.

The report puts forward eight sectors in which waste reduction and resource efficiency could reap the greatest carbon savings, including food and manufacturing. On the former, one-third of all food produced globally is wasted and emissions from food waste account for around 8% of the global annual total.

WRAP and CREDS claim that the strategies explored are proven and can be “implemented easily, and straight away” at scale. The report details several business case studies as evidence that the approaches work at a small scale and are commercially viable.

The report also urges the Government to better account for emissions associated with resource use. At present, emissions from international shipping and aviation are not included in accounting for net-zero. BEIS also produces separate reports on domestic emissions and UK emissions including imports.

Ministers are notably in the process of consulting on key measures from the Resources and Waste Strategy this year. They include a Waste Prevention strategy detailing new Extended Producer Responsibility requirements for businesses; the English deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles and universal food waste recycling for households.

“We have a perfect storm brewing with a growing global population consuming more products and putting more pressure on nature and limiting our ability to cut emissions,” WRAP chief executive Marcus Gover said.

“Our report shows how and why resource efficiency will help meet net-zero. Changing how we use materials and energy today will create a healthier, safer planet for tomorrow and the strategies are simple and easily actionable steps on the journey to net-zero. We offer a clear and practical roadmap to deliver huge reductions in carbon emissions.”


Sustainable Business Covered podcast: How can the circular economy help us get to net-zero?

Readers keen to find out more about the link between resource use and carbon emissions are encouraged to stream the latest episode of edie's Sustainable Business Covered podcast, which focuses on that topic. 

Sponsored by Zero Waste Scotland, the episode also features exclusive interviews with experts from Circle Economy, Techmet and Walgreens Boots Alliance. Listen for free here. 


Sarah George



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