IPCC Report – Why ‘Stuff’ Matters

13th August 2021

The United Nations published its Sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report this week which summarised the impact and consequences human activity is having on our climate. As governments, businesses, media and the public react, we asked our Principal Consultant and local Councillor in her corner of Devon, Debbie Fletcher, what role resources – a specialist area for Eunomia since the consultancy was founded in 2001 – can play in a world with a changing climate.

Denial is over, it’s time for action

When listening to coverage of the report on the radio earlier this week I cried. But now having digested the report I’m focused on action – it’s achievable to do what we need to do. We just need to get on with it – fast. I was also relieved to hear that government representatives from around the world have all accepted what’s in there i.e. the climate change we are experiencing is anthropogenic (originating in human activity). This means there is no place left for denial – a big barrier that’s stopped us in the past – now it’s about what we do, and how quickly we need to do it.

Dealing with ‘stuff’ full of embodied carbon – right now

I have been an environmental consultant advising on resource management for 13 years. This year I worked on research for TOMRA, a resource optimization organisation, which showed that best practice waste management systems have the potential to reduce global GHG emissions by around 5% by 2050. The contribution better waste management can make often isn’t mentioned in discussions around how to address the climate emergency, and when you know buildings contribute an estimated 6% of emissions, you begin to grasp the size of this opportunity.

We need to get our ‘stuff’ to operate in a circular economy – where growth is decoupled from the consumption of finite resources – as making totally new stuff creates carbon emissions (and other environmental problems). There are two things we can do now that will support this, first by setting and driving more ambitious recycling targets, linking them directly to maximising carbon reductions, and bringing them forward in time. According to figures in the IPCC Special Report released in 2018 we need to have a decline of carbon emissions within the next two years to have the best chance of keeping global temperature rises within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, so we need to change our waste management systems accordingly and quickly. We need to design materials that can be recycled, make sure we collect them, and get them back into new products. There are lots of policy mechanisms – like Extended Producer Responsibility – being developed to support this – which need to be realised, but we also need investment in the infrastructure that makes this sort of resource management possible. The technology and thinking needed to implement these systems are there, ready to go.

Reducing consumption but not life satisfaction

Our research shows that at least 50% of emissions responsible for climate change are embodied in the things we use, and part of addressing our increasingly unstable climate is reducing our consumption by reusing, repairing and sharing and moving waste and resource management as far up the waste hierarchy as possible. There is a lot of focus on addressing emissions in energy, transport and agriculture in climate emergency discussions, which makes sense, but resources are often forgotten – and it’s where we find a large chunk of the embodied carbon. The IPCC report says repeatedly – we need to change as fast as we can – so there is a role that everyone can play now and that’s through reducing consumption.

The idea that reduced consumption will limit or cut life satisfaction doesn’t stand up either – the way resources are currently managed across the world include children scraping through landfill and communities inhaling toxic fumes because of other people’s waste – neither offer good life satisfaction. Some might argue these systems offer jobs, but best practice waste management infrastructure would offer quality jobs, not dangerous ones. And for those of us in the west feeling threatened by change, do our current consumption levels give us life satisfaction? 63% of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes, or often lonely in England, and physical inactivity is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths in the UK. So we need to stop the messaging that says lifestyles can continue as they are – those saying this haven’t grasped the size of this challenge – and acknowledge that striving for social justice as part of our path to decarbonisation will make the world a happier place to live in.

We need speed of action – the more we can do and the sooner we can do it, the better, both for our world and ourselves. To give time for innovation in some of the more challenging areas, the government, investors, and industry need to invest now in waste and resource management that keeps material in the system.