The role of resource efficiency in reaching ‘net zero’ – a blast from the past

9 October 2020

I recently read a fascinating infographic produced by Green Alliance, proposing a step change in the UK’s resource efficiency as one of five policies that could, together, plug the significant gap between our current climate policies and what is needed to deliver the Government’s new ‘net zero’ carbon target by 2050.

It reminded me of a report that WRAP produced in 2009, fully ten years ago, called ‘Meeting the UK climate change challenge: the contribution of resource efficiency’. We produced this with extremely valuable input from Professor John Barrett, then of the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, and now at Leeds University. It was developed as our response to the UK Government’s global leadership on the climate agenda, including the publication of the Stern Review into the economics of climate change in 2006, and the passing of the UK Climate Change Act in 2008.

Our report investigated the greenhouse gas emission reductions that could be delivered by thirteen different activities – seven by producers, and six by consumers – and concluded that the greatest cuts could be achieved by focusing on the consumption-related activities, with only one production-related activity (lean production) being comparable in scale. Of the six consumption-focused actions, the three best performers were introducing dietary changes (e.g. reducing meat intake), moving to a restorative (circular) economy, and lifetime optimisation (i.e. continuing to use products until they break, rather than replacing them when the next model is released).

Looking back, this is one of the best reports I have worked on in my years at WRAP. It was bold and forward-looking, and made me extremely proud of my decision to join the organisation. It also led to one of those moments when ‘the penny dropped’ for me, personally, as the report clearly showed that the impacts of changes in consumption patterns have the potential to be much larger than if we just change production practices – even if, as we readily acknowledge, changing consumer behaviour can be a real challenge.

Reviewing the report a decade on, and comparing it against Green Alliance’s recent infographic, it’s clear that the main conclusions remain relevant today. Does that mean we’ve made no progress in the last ten years? Far from it. WRAP’s work since 2009 has delivered significant reductions in food waste and in the environmental impacts of UK clothing, as well as improving household recycling rates and cutting plastic packaging. Even better, in the intervening ten years, John has continued to push the resource efficiency agenda and the importance of consumption economics with the Committee of Climate Change and the International Panel on Climate Change. In the UK’s 6th Carbon Budget, addressing food waste is identified as an important action. If that’s not progress, what is?

Even so, I don’t think we made enough of the report at the time. There were good reasons – not least the global financial crisis, which was starting to dominate the political and media agenda by that time – but I wish we had been a little more confident in promoting some of the more radical recommendations we’d come up with. But perhaps we were just a little too far ahead of our time. Dietary change in particular was a highly controversial issue ten years ago. More recently, though, the huge increase in the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets in the UK, along with the UN proposal, in early August, that a progressive reduction in the amount of meat we eat could help to tackle climate change, suggests that this is an issue whose time may now have come. Clearly the narrative has changed from ‘why are we doing this?’ to ‘what shall we do about it?’

Looking to the future, in light of the UK Government’s decision this summer to put a ‘net zero’ carbon target by 2050 into legislation, I am thinking it is time to revisit our 2009 report, to inform our own strategic thinking as WRAP comes to the end of our current Business Plan and start to decide what our priorities should be for the future. ‘Net zero’ presents a huge challenge to the country, and we will need every weapon in our armoury if we’re to tackle it successfully. Resource efficiency has an important part to play, and I want WRAP to come up with specific, workable solutions that will get us there.