Producing the steel, concrete and other materials that go into our cars and homes accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gases.
A group of industrial ecologists from five different countries recently published a study in Nature Communications. The group has developed modelling suggesting that the use of lighter and smaller products, combined with more intense material use and some behavioural shifts, could cut emissions from these sectors by between one and two thirds.
The researchers investigated the production, use and disposal of residential buildings and vehicles in the period up to 2050, exploring different assumptions about demand, population size and climate policies. Their modelling showed that the efficient use of materials could deliver savings on top of energy efficiency and low-carbon energy supply, making it a possible third pillar of decarbonisation for these sectors. The research also showed that, in absolute terms, emissions cuts from dematerialisation in developing countries could be larger than those in industrialised countries.
While achieving these gains might require difficult shifts in policy, it would require no technical breakthroughs. The technologies are already available and making the gains identified by this research could begin almost at once. What is needed, the group concludes, is willingness among politicians and citizens.