Net Zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers

Managing resources sustainably is key to cutting UK greenhouse gases

24 March 2021

  • UK could cut CO2e emissions by 100 million tonnes in ten years by using resources more efficiently.
  • Using resources sustainably, extending the useful life of products and preventing waste could save UK GHG emissions on par with annual territorial GHG emissions of UK, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium & Austria combined.

With much of the debate ahead of the COP26 focused on the energy agenda and how to decarbonise energy supply and reduce demand, the authors of a new report Net Zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers warn that focusing exclusively on energy is only half of the solution to tackling climate change associated with carbon emissions.

Quick wins in resource efficiency could help the UK cut its annual emissions by around two billion tonnes of CO2e, between now and 2050. Improving resource efficiency in goods and services is crucial to tackling climate change, say the report authors, but simple resource efficiency strategies that drive forward action without costly interventions or new technology are being overlooked in work toward net zero.


NET Zero


The report, Net Zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers was produced by environmental charity WRAP in partnership with researchers from The Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), based at Leeds University. It points out that, between now and 2050, using natural resources more sustainably and extending the useful lifetime of products – and preventing loss or waste – could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions incurred by UK consumption by two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. That is the equivalent to eliminating the combined annual territorial greenhouse gas emissions of the UK, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria.

From reducing food loss and waste to moving to more resource efficient business models, and using more recycled materials in manufacturing, the eight strategies put forward are based on real-world projects that have been proven to work. One of the benefits of the strategies is that they can be implemented easily, and straight away. And with the impacts of climate change relating to cumulative emissions over time, the authors are keen to show how their recommendations – which cut carbon today – should be prioritised over those that do not deliver results for years.

Marcus Gover, WRAP CEO: “The race to meet net zero and halt climate change becomes more urgent with every passing day, and with COP26 on the horizon the pressure is on to deliver realistic strategies. 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. 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 in Net Zero are simple and easily actionable steps on the journey to net zero. Through it, we offer a clear and practical roadmap to deliver huge reductions in carbon emissions.”

Professor John Barrett, Chair in Energy and Climate Policy, University of Leeds: "Putting 'the economy' in one corner and 'the climate crisis' in another is never going to work. Delivering a high quality of life for all is possible while reducing the throughput of high carbon intensive products. Our analysis shows the options available to ensure that we get the maximum social benefit from our resource use and how this will make a significant contribution to reducing our Greenhouse Gas Emissions in many of the “hard to mitigate” sectors."

Net Zero: why resource efficiency holds the answers shows how simple changes to the way we use materials could reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tonnes CO2e between 2023 and 2032, equal to taking every car off the road for around 1.5 years. The report also shows how actions we take in the UK can reduce global emissions, with the resource efficiency strategies offering the potential to reduce global emissions by 2 billion tonnes CO2e between now and 2050, and an additional 89 million tonnes CO2e avoided towards the 6th Carbon Budget.

WRAP and CREDS believe that their recommendations could offer 50% more territorial greenhouse gas emission reduction in addition to the UK government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, with upward of an additional 100 million tonne CO2e GHG emissions and help the UK meet its commitment to net zero carbon by 2050. Including reductions overseas, the gross reduction of these strategies could be as high as 364MtCO2e between 2023 to 2032.


Notes to Editor

The recommendations complement and build on those of the Committee on Climate Change, and detail clearly the opportunities that policy makers, business and individuals should take under eight categories:

  • Tackling food waste – with concerted effort, it is possible to achieve a 58% per capita reduction in UK food waste by 2050. This could contribute up to 4.6 million tonnes to the 6th Carbon Budget, and reduce cumulative emissions associated with UK food waste by 143MtCO2e by 2050, including overseas emissions.
  • Cutting calories and carbon at the same time - moderating calorific intake to nutritionally recommended levels can deliver health and climate benefits but must be done in a way that supports those in food poverty. Allowing for differing lifestyles, if the average calorific intake were reduced to 2500kcal per day from a current average of 2900kcal, the reduction in food requirement would equate to a 6.6MtCO2e contribution to the 6th Carbon Budget by 2050, and reduce cumulative emissions associated with UK food by 135MtCO2e by 2050.
  • Changing the carbon intensity of diets – National diets are evolving, with a shift towards foods with lower embodied carbon. Continued changes in eating habits could further reduce the carbon impact of our food system. WRAP is working to reduce the carbon intensity of foods with high embodied carbon such as meat. The cumulative carbon benefit to 2050 could be 554 million tonnes CO2e – equivalent to taking all cars off UK roads for eight years.
  • Switching from Goods to Services – WRAP research suggests that increasing rental could add over £20 billion to UK Gross Value Added and create over 100,000 jobs. Renting items which are less regularly used increases the frequency with which they can be used and could reduce UK emissions by 39MtCO2e in total by 2050. The major opportunity comes from car rental and chemical leasing. Rental of products could reduce emissions associated with UK consumption by 506MtCO2e cumulatively to 2050. For example: over 50 million tonnes could be saved through rental of clothing, while the rental of vehicles could avoid over 300MtCO2e. WRAP research shows that around the world consumption of clothing is outpacing use - we are buying more and wearing them less often. At any one moment, less than 15% of UK cars are in use.
  • Making better use of existing products - remanufacturing, repair and reuse can reduce demand for materials, and increase economic and employment opportunities. Clothing, shoes, electrical and electronic items, furniture and vehicles are products from which we could get more use. WRAP research found that increasing refurbishment of products could add over £54 billion to UK GVA and create 300,000 jobs. The cumulative carbon benefit to 2050 could be as high as 381MtCO2e – equivalent to taking all the UK’s cars off the road for around 6 years.
  • Designing lightweight products Designing lighter products by reducing material input improves resource efficiency. For energy intensive sectors like steel and aluminium, reducing these materials to create a product can significantly reduce its embodied emissions. Light-weighting packaging by 40% could contribute up to 2.7MtCO2e to the 6th Carbon Budget. Reducing steel requirements for electrical equipment, machinery, furniture, and other transport equipment by 25% could contribute a further 0.8 MtCO2e to the 6th Carbon Budget. While light-weighting a range of construction products could contribute 6.3 MtCO2e to the 6th Carbon Budget.
  • Recycling more in the UK – Most material collected in the UK is exported for recycling, meaning missed opportunities to reduce emissions from UK industry. Increasing the use of recycled materials within the UK could reduce emissions by 16MtCO2e during the 6th Carbon Budget. The cumulative carbon benefit to 2050 could be 279MtCO2e – equivalent to taking all cars off UK roads for around 4 years. The UK generates about 10m tonnes of steel scrap annually of which 80% is exported to Turkey and China. The US, by contrast, meets half of its demand for steel through recycling.
  • Substituting materials – across furniture, vehicles, construction, and packaging it is possible to substitute high carbon intensity materials with lower carbon alternatives that perform the same role, in a range of applications. The cumulative carbon benefit to 2050 could be 26MtCO2e – equivalent to taking all of the UK’s cars off the road for around 4 months.
  • For more information or to arrange an interview, briefings or comment please contact: Ian Palmer, Media Relations Manager 07802 873 431
  • WRAP is a global NGO based in the UK. It is one of the UK’s top 5 environmental charities and works with governments, businesses and individuals to ensure that the world’s natural resources are used sustainably. It is the charity leading The UK Plastics Pact (a world first) as well as Love Food Hate Waste, Food Waste Action Week, the Courtauld Commitment, the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, Textiles 2030 and Recycle Now. WRAP works collaboratively and develops and delivers evidence-based, impactful solutions to reduce the environmental cost of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the plastic packaging we use. Founded in 2000 in the UK, WRAP now works around the world and is a Global Alliance Partner of The Royal Foundation’s Earthshot Prize. Read Our Plan for a Sustainable Planet.
  • The Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) was established as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s Energy Programme in April 2018, with funding of £19.5M over 5 years. Its mission is to make the UK a leader in understanding the changes in energy demand needed for the transition to a secure and affordable, low carbon energy system. CREDS has a team of over 140 people based at 24 UK universities. This research was undertaken by CREDS researchers based at The University of Leeds