Materials & products: findings report

Our Materials & Products research has found that delivering net-zero in industry will require a combination of improved material resource efficiency, energy efficiency improvement and new zero-carbon industrial processes. In the short term, materials efficiency has the greatest potential, with new processes contributing more as we move towards 2050.

Our Materials & Products research focused on four research strands:

1. Industrial energy demand

The UK no longer has the opportunity to gradually introduce new technologies and allow for the moderate uptake of low-carbon options. Instead, the UK Government acknowledges it needs to take an active role in driving innovation and correcting market failures. Such an approach requires robust evidence to ensure that environmental, social and economic goals are met. Good quality data is vital to implement this transformation and inform credible decision-making.

This strand of research concludes:

  • There is an urgent need for a public data strategy which gathers linked data on emissions, technologies, and related environmental, social and economic impacts.
  • High-quality data and indicators for the monitoring and management of industrial energy should respond to the needs, both present and future, of stakeholders.
  • This ideal dataset(s) should be readily updatable, open access, and independently managed, while ensuring consistency in concept, terminology and classifications.
  • That the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) would be well-placed to help establish a central public body that works with key agencies (for example the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Committee on Climate Change (CCC)) with the aim of delivering an improved evidence base on industrial energy, emissions and technologies.

In this strand of research our focus on exploring industry emissions from a consumption-based, emission perspective has fundamentally changed the methods of Government reporting, our understanding of progress and the policy options available to deliver global reductions in energy demand and GHG emissions. Coupled with this, our analysis of resource efficiency has provided key insights into an under-explored area of Government policy (we have provided support on a weekly basis to Defra, BEIS, Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the CCC using our MRIO model that is being continually developed with CREDS funding). In addition, this approach has been adopted by HM Treasury to analyse the distributional impacts of carbon footprints in their interim report of their Net Zero Review. We have formed a cross-governmental group to discuss monitoring energy/resources and economic implications, policy assessment and analysis and the interrelationship between all these issues that sit across a number of Government departments. The group includes Defra, BEIS, ONS and Innovate UK. It is now administered by Defra and meets on a two-weekly basis. The University of Leeds is the only academic organisation in the group to focus on how our research can be applied across all the departments.

Furthermore, this research has had a significant impact in relation to calculating the UK’s consumption-based GHG emissions and formulating a policy response to address them. Over many years, the research team at the University of Leeds, led by Professor John Barrett, has both supported a number of Government departments and the CCC in relation to consumption-based GHG emissions. We have now made significant contributions to the past five major reports by the CCC that report progress to Government. This has involved giving the CCC access to our global MRIO model that tracks the GHG emissions associated with global supply chains. We have directly contributed to reports on multiple areas including measuring the UK’s consumption impacts and the resource efficiency.

Alice Garvey completed a secondment to support the CCC in their analysis of industrial energy policy options for the Sixth Carbon Budget report. We provided an updated analysis of resource efficiency strategies for UK industry. We also provided information specific to Scotland to allow us to undertake a similar analysis for the Scottish Government. Without the development of the MRIO model, consumption-based emissions would simply not have featured in CCC reports. Our analysis of resource efficiency has provided key insights into an under-explored area of Government policy. The concept indicates that the total amount of resources (raw materials and process emissions) influences the scale of emissions and by changing the materials and process used, we can radically alter the emissions, but maintain the same function. The research from Leeds allowed the CCC to report to UK Government that resource efficiency was equally, if not more, important than the previous focus on energy efficiency.

A new report about resource efficiency, which was produced in collaboration with environmental charity WRAP, was launched on 26 March 2021. Through eight complementary strategies, the report sets out how changing the way we use materials as well as energy could deliver an additional 100 million tonnes (Mt) CO2e reduction in territorial emissions between 2023 and 2032, boosting savings from the UK government’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution by over 50%. It could also contribute over 10% (89 MtCO2e) of the reductions required from the 5th to the 6th recommended Carbon Budgets. The report attracted a lot of activity on Twitter and coverage in a selection of media, including the Radio 4 Today programme, Business Green, Drapers Online, MRW Magazine, Resource Magazine, Sustainable Packaging News. And finally, a series of sector specific papers have been published in world leading journals, including Technology and material efficiency scenarios for net zero emissions in the UK steel sector, and Towards net zero nutrition: The contribution of demand-side change to mitigating UK food emissions.

2. Energy demand lifecycles

Changes in consumption patterns (e.g. transport modal shifts, energy use by households, choice of longer-lasting products, dietary shifts) to low-carbon alternatives present a great potential for emission reductions. This strand of research focused on consumption-based mitigation options across various end-use sectors, including food, housing, transport and other consumption.

What the work explored:

A systematic review entitled Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options was published in the special issue on the Focus on demand-side solutions for transitioning to low-carbon societies in Environmental Research Letters. Following on from this, an article entitled Household sharing for carbon and energy reductions: the case of EU countries was published in the special issue on Energy efficient cities of today and tomorrow in Energies. This work explored the differences and similarities in terms of household dynamics across EU countries and highlights their energy and carbon implications. Further expanding this focus on distribution and sustainability, an article entitled The unequal distribution of household carbon footprints in Europe and its link to sustainability was published with gold open access in the Journal of Global Sustainability. Diana Ivanova has continued to explore themes of global distribution and household consumption in Future changes in consumption: The income effect on greenhouse gas emissions in Energy Economics.

A further project associated with this strand was the independent review of industrial decarbonisation policies to inform the 6th Carbon Budget recommendations of the CCC. The project (March 2020-December 2020) involved regular engagement with researchers in the committee as well as representatives from BEIS and the Energy Systems Catapult through weekly working group meetings. Extensive stakeholder engagement was carried out in the form of three steering group workshops (July, August, September 2020) as well as multiple individual consultations with representatives from the civil service, industry, trade organisations and the third sector (e.g. Green Alliance). A survey of stakeholders has also been completed (July-August 2020). The findings have been published in an independent CREDS report in December 2020 to coincide with the publication of the committee’s recommendations. A policy brief and downloadable Industrial decarbonisation policy dataset were also published alongside the report.

This strand of research also engaged substantially with the construction sector. The team explored the science-based targets initiative which seeks to align corporate carbon reduction targets with global decarbonisation trajectories. Science based targets: On target? was published in Sustainability in February 2021. The team also brought this work together with a focus on distribution, wellbeing, and justice, publishing a briefing paper on the Ten principles for building back better to create wellbeing economies post-CovidOpens in a new tab (co-authored by Milena Büchs, Alice Garvey, Diana Ivanova from CREDS and others), and a journal article on the Global redistribution of income and household energy footprints: A computational thought experiments. Further research includes:

Finally, this strand contributed to the application and critique of a new UK standard for whole-life carbon assessment in buildings, which was incorporated into the Green Construction Board Low Carbon Routemap. In November 2021 the UKGBC launched their Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap for the UK built environment. Jannik Giesekam worked with Arup and a range of industry stakeholders on the delivery of the roadmap. The roadmap, including a Pathway to Net Zero for the UK Built Environment, a technical report, a summary for policymakers and a set of stakeholder action plans were developed.

3. Energy demand modelling

This strand of research focused on producing a new version 2.0 of the MARCO-UK model, such that it can then be applied to CREDS research questions, for example giving new insights into the effects of different industrial futures on the economy, energy demand and employment. The aim of this strand was to provide a comprehensive assessment of energy and resource productivity options that have the potential to deliver a reduction in industrial energy demand. It considers the broader implications of these strategies through the quantitative lens of the improved MARCO-UK model by assessing the scale of energy rebound effects, conflicting outcomes between different strategies, and the broader socio-economic implications on employment and trade.

The project focused on developing improvements in relation to two key aspects of the MARCO-UK model:

  1. Improved granularity: industrial sectors: split energy (FEN_IND) to match BEIS sectors; split fossil fuels/renewables inputs; splitting OTHER into sub-sectors: commerce; government; agriculture; other; including transport; including digital/ICT use, and
  2. Constraints/feedback loops: Energetic constraints (efficiency limits and net energy inputs); energy cost share vs GDP limits; financial constraints: e.g. private and government debt; CO2 feedbacks (damage function); labour force availability.

This strand published two working papers, Socio-macroeconomic impacts of meeting new build and retrofit UK building energy targets to 2030: a MARCO-UK modelling study, and a report on the socio-macroeconomic impacts of the UK Labour Party’s renewable and low carbon energy targets in the ‘30 by 2030’ UK Energy Plan. In November 2021 a paper on Socio-macroeconomic impacts of implementing different post-Brexit UK energy reduction targets to 2030 was published in Energy Policy.

Another strand of this theme has focused on modelling energy footprints at a national and international levels. Notable publications include:

This has been coupled with a focus on UK level policies and interventions:

4. Low energy demand scenarios – Positive Low Energy Futures (PLEF)

Positive Low Energy Futures was a cross-centre, collaborative piece of modelling work aimed at plugging a vital gap in the UK national energy demand research landscape. The project was a flexible, iterative process, born out of the CREDS flexible fund, that allowed us to bring together 17 modelling experts from across several institutions to deliver the most comprehensive estimate for the potential role of energy demand reduction in the UK’s climate mitigation challenge to date. The research culminated in results demonstrating that the UK could potentially reduce its energy demand by up to 52% by 2050, reduce the cost of the transition to net-zero and reduce our reliance on risky Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies that are unproven at scale – all whilst improving social outcomes.

From its inception, the Positive Low Energy Futures project sought to ensure that the impact would reach a diverse set of stakeholders. By design, research findings were strategically publicised to multiple stakeholder groups, led by a communication and promotion strategy utilising a variety of mediums (digital content, animations, webinars, reports and high-profile academic journal papers) and platforms (online talks, conference presentations, media engagement), supported by the key skills in impact and engagement held by the CREDS core team.

To promote the research project’s findings, CREDS hosted an online launch in October 2021, which was attended by a variety of different stakeholders including academics, policymakers and politicians as well as private sector groups. Shortly after, we were contacted by the Government Office for Science, who attended the launch and were interested in using the modelling framework developed for Positive Low Energy Futures to generate their own scenarios for an upcoming net-zero Foresight project. This research looked to explore the role of societal and behavioural change within net-zero pathways and adopt a similar methodological approach to us. As a result, the CREDS modelling team were heavily involved in the development, modelling and write up of the subsequent GO-Science reportOpens in a new tab, which found that pathways with little societal demand change will find it much harder to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050.

This collaboration also led to further opportunities to present the original PLEF scenarios to other stakeholders throughout government, including a breakfast meeting of the Government’s Scientific Advisors and several committee meetings hosted by the All Party Intelligent Energy Group and All Party Parliamentary Group for Renewable and Sustainable Energy and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. These opportunities were available thanks to the flexible approach taken to producing impact and a willingness to undertake further collaborative work with interested parties.

Furthermore, Positive Low Energy Futures was also presented to a European audience at the 2022 eceee (European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy) conference in Hyères, France. After the presentation, we engaged with attendants from Association négaWatt, a French research group that had also explored a low energy demand scenario for France, and were now looking embark on a more ambitious project – a low energy demand scenario for EuropeOpens in a new tab. They were also keen to include the UK but had gaps in their data. As a result, CREDS was able to become a partner in the project, using the Positive Low Energy Future results to inform the UK portion of the European pathway.

Since the launch of PLEF in October 2021, CREDS researchers have continued to build upon this pivotal piece of work and further explore the possibilities of low energy futures. CREDS researchers have engaged significantly with the EDITS (Energy Demand changes Induced by Technological and Social innovations) Network, who aim to identify gaps and potentials to enhance modelling, analysing, and communicating the demand-side solutions for climate mitigation. The team have joined EDITS committees, co-authored research, and organised collaborative events. John Barrett et al. published the results of PLEF in Nature Energy: Energy demand reduction options for meeting national zero-emission targets in the United Kingdom; and Joel Millward-Hopkins and Elliott Johnson explored safe and just low energy futures: Distributing less, redistributing more: Safe and just low-energy futures in the United KingdomOpens in a new tab.

Banner photo credit: Lenny Kuhne on Unsplash