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As governments around the world aim to reach net zero emissions in the coming decades, the need for an ever more concerted approach to cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has been made abundantly clear by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes’s (IPCC) latest report

Until now, efforts had focused primarily on reducing emissions in how we generate energy, for example in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. No small wonder; burning fossil fuels is by far the largest source of d GHG emissions from human activity. The response to this has been an impressive tenfold growth in renewable energy sectors (not including hydro) since the 1990s. In the last ten years investment in renewables has climbed 100% to $500 billion a year. 

Despite these great strides, projections show that coal is still likely to form the bulk of our energy supply in 2040. For this reason experts contend that we cannot focus solely on the so-called ‘energy transition’, but also turn our attention toward a ‘materials transition’. For consumer-facing companies the largest opportunity for reducing emissions is in their supply chain, where 80% of their GHG emissions are concentrated. In the materials transition we must find ways to reduce the emissions which arise from our use of materials in the manufacture of products. 


Materials Transition Framework

Between 1970 and 2017, the total mass of materials extracted from the earth grew by nearly 250%, and the rate of growth is accelerating all the time. Material production causes over half of GHG emissions from Industry.  This unsustainable drain on the earth’s resources has been compounded by a culture of convenience, short term gratification, and hyper-disposability – for example in so-called ‘fast fashion’. 

The materials transition is concerned with how we design better materials into products with one eye on the emissions produced during their use in manufacturing, and another on the emissions related to product performance and disposal or reuse. The materials transition framework, as set out by the World Economic Forum, consists of three pillars, or points of action which seek to rethink the established materials landscape from every angle. These are:

Materials-Induced Efficiency

Materials-induced efficiency means finding efficiencies in a product’s value chain via the sorts of materials we deploy. In using advanced materials over conventional materials, manufacturers are able to improve the performance of a product in a number of metrics such as weight and durability. The use of advanced materials both lengthens the product’s useful life and reduces its emissions. An example is using carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) in rotor blades for wind turbines instead of steel, which achieves a 30% lighter blade and therefore a more efficient source of renewable energy. 

Material Substitution

Material substitution is about replacing emissions-intensive materials with less emissions-intensive substitutes. So if emissions-induced efficiency is about a better functioning, longer-lasting product, substitution is about a cleaner process – reducing the emissions that result from production. Most often this is going to mean using renewable materials, whether it is bamboo instead of cotton, or green steel instead of conventional steel in vehicles. Studies have found that some of the biggest gains in material substitution are in buildings and light vehicles. In practice materials substitution could mean replacing a high GHG emitter like conventional cement with polymer concrete. Polymer concrete outperforms conventional cement in almost every metric; it is 75% lighter, and has superior thermal and mechanical properties. As a result, the production process with traditional cement has a much larger CO2 emissions output. 

Fast fashion is perhaps an even more instructive case study for the concept of material substitution. The fashion industry’s drain on land and water resources is immense, largely because of the growth demands of crops like cotton. CO2 emissions from the clothing industry are projected to grow 77% from 2015 to 2025. Renewable materials such as hemp, algae, bamboo and even rubber, could cut production emissions and have the potential to produce a longer lasting product than can be more easily reused at the end of its life. 


The third pillar of the materials transition is enhancing the circularity of materials we use. This means reusing or recycling materials into new products or sources of energy wherever possible. This is in line with the broader concept of the circular economy which is gaining policy traction in most major economies, from the US’s National Recycling Strategy to the EU Circular Economy Plan. 

Circularity can also include Carbon Capture and Storage/Utilization (CCS/CCU) in which CO2 captured from industry is redeployed in the manufacture of fuels, chemicals and building materials. Carbon circularity could help turn some emissions-intensive processes such as Waste To Energy plants, into carbon sinks. To return to the case of wind turbines; GE Renewable Energy and Veolia have lately developed a scheme to recycle used wind turbines toward the manufacture of cement. This scheme is expected to attain a 27% reduction in associated production emissions. 

Note that material circularity is not only an option for developed economies, opportunities are available for emerging economies too. For example, material recovery from mixed recyclables of PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles can yield up to $315 per metric ton. Another stream is the recovery of waste tires, which can be crumbled to make a valuable aggregate used in roadbeds. Yet another example is smelting electronic waste for gold. 


Challenges & Benefits

Substituted technologies and materials must be made scalable if they are to replace conventional materials in industry at realistic costs. This is also the stumbling block for many promising sources of energy like biofuel, as well as sustainable materials like algae. Another more abstract challenge is altering consumption patterns. It is all very well to build in the facility for materials to be reused or recycled, but this requires a behavioral, even a cultural change at the level of the consumer. 

This could equally be framed as an opportunity and may even merit the inclusion of a fourth pillar which doesn’t feature in the WEF framework; shifting consumption patterns. For example, there are great gains to be made in cutting our consumption via pay-per-use models as alternatives to outright ownership. The willingness or the foresight of companies to seek out the opportunities of the materials transition is also a challenge. Less than 20% of 1,700 companies surveyed by the  Sustainability Consortium are actively identifying emissions reduction opportunities in their supply chain. 

Despite these challenges, the overriding benefit of the materials transition, aside from its direct reduction of emissions, is that it gives some much-needed slack to the energy transition by requiring less juice to produce the same things. In turn, this will make the global energy transition smoother, and more sustainable in and of itself. There are also appendant social benefits via the creation of new jobs and increased economic activity from new technologies. For example, fuel refinery workers can sidestep into producing primary chemicals needed for some of the advanced renewable materials.  And there are social boons from the increased efficiency of buildings and the proliferation of renewables into all communities. Alongside the energy transition, the materials transition forms an essential part of the concerted effort that the IPCC has recommended for the battle against climate change.


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