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Resource efficiency scenarios for the UK: A technical report

26 March, 2021

Resource efficiency scenarios for the UK: A technical report

Jonathan Norman

John Barrett

Alice Garvey

Jannik Giesekam

Robin Styles

Report   Materials & Products

Jonathan Norman, John Barrett, Sam Betts-Davies, Rachel Carr-Whitworth, Alice Garvey, Jannik Giesekam, Keith James and Robin Styles


Energy is required to transform raw materials into products. The majority of this energy is provided by fossil fuels and therefore contributes to climate change. Energy demand continues to rise globally, which means that additional renewable energy is used to meet this increase in demand. At this global level renewable energy supply increased by 81 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2017 (IEA, 2019). However, in the same period, energy demand grew by 328 Mtoe (2.3% more than the previous year) (IEA, 2019). The demand for materials and products forms an important part of this increase and, according to the International Energy Agency, global industrial energy demand is forecast to continue increasing (IEA, 2020).

At the domestic level it initially appears that the UK is moving in the opposite direction to the global trend with significant declines in industrial energy in the recent past; industrial energy demand has halved over the past 40 years (BEIS, 2020). However, as the UK has shifted to become an increasingly service based economy, the materials required to satisfy UK consumption have not declined; they are increasingly imported from elsewhere (University of Leeds and Defra, 2020). This partially explains why the energy demand of UK industry has halved in the past 40 years while industrial energy demand has not. The reality is that the industrial energy demand needed to satisfy UK consumption has remained relatively unchanged for the past 40 years (Barrett et al, 2018).

With consumption levels increasing and industrial energy demand required to meet this consumption remaining relatively unchanged, there have been improvements in the efficiency of production. This relative decoupling has ensured that industrial energy demand has not grown at the same rate as demand for materials and products. This has predominantly been met by two factors; energy efficiency improvements and changes in the structure of the economy (Hardt et al, 2018). Reducing the amount of materials to deliver our desired level of consumption has not been fully explored and implemented. In addition, there is a limited understanding of how the services provided by consumption (nutrition, shelter, mobility etc.) could be delivered with less material input. Finally, a greater appreciation is required of whether the most carbon intensive materials should be avoided.

The UK is legally required to reduce its territorial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050. However, it is not only this target that is important but also the total GHG emissions emitted between now and 2050. It is these total GHG emissions that are linked to the climate impact rather than the level of emissions in 2050. Therefore, rapid reductions are more significant to reduce the total cumulative emissions.

Broadly speaking, the UK has three options to achieve this goal. These options are; to reduce the carbon intensity of energy; to reduce energy demand; and to remove any remaining GHG emissions. There is considerable evidence to suggest that all three are required to achieve the scale and speed of reduction required. It is simply not possible to ignore any of the three options. For industry, there are important energy efficiency improvements that can still be implemented. However, it is also important to focus on whether further reductions can be achieved by exploring the output of industry, i.e. materials and products.

Publication details

Norman, J., Barrett, J., Betts-Davies, S., Carr-Whitworth, R., Garvey, A., Giesekam, J., James, K. and Styles, R. 2021. Resource efficiency scenarios for the UK: A technical report. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Oxford, UK. ISBN: 978-1-913299-06-4

Banner photo credit: Alireza Attari on Unsplash