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Action on resource efficiency urged by scientists

A call for greater emphasis on resource efficiency has been made by scientists who argue that politicians should act to change consumer expectations.

The experts’ conclusions have been published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, which says the reasons for greater efficiency include cutting energy demand, reducing emissions and boosting resource security. But they also said that energy-intensive sectors such as steel, plastics and paper are among the most efficient.

The authors of an issue of the journal entitled ‘Material efficiency: providing material services with less material production’ say that in the current economic situation, consumer preferences for materials “continue even beyond the point at which increased consumption provides any increase in well-being. Therefore intelligent policy will be required to stimulate material efficiency”.

The experts include the government chief energy scientist Professor David MacKay who argues Britain will need the equivalent of a four-fold increase in nuclear power or a 40-fold increase in wind power to meet its target of a 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 from pre-industrial levels unless demand for materials is reduced.

Another scientist, Julian Allwood, from Cambridge University, said the five most energy-intensive sectors: steel, aluminium, cement, plastics and paper already use energy more efficiently than other sectors. But because they therefore have less scope for improvement, society has to demand less of the materials in the first place.

“We can use much less cement in buildings than we do at the moment,” he told BBC News. “The thing is that it takes more time to design buildings with less cement, and it takes more effort for builders. Labour is expensive and cement – relatively – is cheap, so there’s little incentive to change.”

Allwood says that to meet CO2 targets, demand for new steel in the UK alone must be reduced to 30% of current levels.

Walter Stahel at the Product-Life Institute, Geneva, calls for “sustainable taxation” on resource-hungry goods to help the shift towards a circular economy where goods are reused and recycled.

He anticipates this would create regional jobs, aid resource security, cut consumption of non-renewable resources, boost material efficiency and reduce carbon emissions and industrial waste.

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