Net Zero is not enough

9th July 2021 Posted by

Blog by Stuart Hayward-Higham, Technical Development Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

As we all grapple with recovery from the COVID pandemic, with the historic and future financial strains and with climate change, carbon reduction and working on plans for, or delivering on commitments in net zero plans, it is perhaps easy to think that we have ‘enough on our plate already’ and seek not to widen our focus. On climate change we need to do lots more well before 2050. Even if we reach the Paris Accord goal of net zero by 2050, it won’t change the fact that global temperatures are already 1C warmer than the last century. Every year we witness more frequent and extreme climate events: catastrophic flooding, faster coastal erosion, extreme droughts and water shortages, devastating wildfires, and potentially permanent damage to habitats, plants, and wildlife and these events are likely to increase if temperatures continue to rise.

However, on resource consumption, we continue to see consumption rates somewhere between two and three world equivalents, easily and understandably unsustainable. Further, and more worryingly, we see trends that suggest resource consumption is increasing faster than population growth and GDP.

Why is this important? Well, if we are using more resources than the world can sustain we will run out of resources at some point, inhibiting future generations, but more importantly today, we are in effect stealing resources from those in the world that currently use less than us and damaging biodiversity, which is fundamental to supporting much of what we need to sustain ourselves and not to denude nature itself.

If we wait until 2040 or 2050 to deliver on our net zero plans first, we will continue to consume resources at a faster rate than the world can support. We also run the risk that we stretch the available renewable resource in trying to move from fossil to biogenic sources such as plant, algae and animal waste. As a simple example, we can achieve some net zero goals by moving to green energy, but if we continue to use the same or increase our consumption of energy then these sources will need more fuel, such as biomass or other biogenic sources to provide that energy, potentially eroding biodiversity, or for western societies, by using resources that would otherwise have been available for developing countries to sustainably improve the living standards of their citizens.

During our recent webinar, Libby Peake, Head or Resource Policy from Green Alliance provided figures which said that the last waste prevention plan had been reported as only achieving 0.01% of waste prevention and that the current Environment Bill does not really tackle resource consumption and its reduction.

The recently consulted waste prevention plan lacked much of the detail and design that were allocated to the other consultations for EPR and DRS and clearly shows that resource use is not as a key priority for government at this time.

The government’s Ten Point Plan for Green Industrial Revolution has many elements that increase resource use, such as more offshore wind, more low carbon hydrogen, more nuclear, more electric vehicles and more greener jet fuel, all of which need new resources for the equipment or the input feedstock. I’m not saying that these things and the other plans are bad, only that they don’t consider the resources needed to deliver them and don’t embed the principles of a ‘resource-lite’ economy that delivers the 40%, to 60% reduction in resource consumption that is required to deliver equitable and one world living. Whilst on the point of the economy, resource consumption does not really seem to appear in the Treasury playbook apart from requirements to report some finite resources consumed.

So what can we do?

Well, we can all start doing something. From driving less to eating less meat or buying less stuff and wasting less food. In fact, there are hundreds of small ways each of us can do to start our carbon and consumption reduction journeys. We know 1kg saved per person by each person per year in the UK is 66ktpa less carbon and/or less resource consumed. Imagine saving 100kg (6.6Mtpa saved) or 1000kg (66Mtpa of carbon and/or resource saved). The power to start and deliver in this instance really is with the people.

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