The UK must set target to halve resource consumption, says report

Libby Peake Libby PeakeHead of resource policy020 7630
The government’s 2018 resources and waste strategy promised to put England on track to a resource efficient, circular economy. But, in the years since, there has been little progress and no targets set to achieve this. [1] The government continues to pursue policies focused on tackling individual high profile waste streams, particularly plastic items like microbeads, plastic bags and straws, instead of addressing the root of the waste problem: overconsumption of resources.
A new report by think tank Green Alliance demonstrates that resource use is a critical issue for the economy, and that climate change and nature loss cannot be addressed without reducing overconsumption. [2]
Resource use drives half of the world’s climate emissions and 90 per cent of nature destruction around the world, and the UK’s use of resources – both renewable and finite – is twice the level considered sustainable. [3, 4] When it comes to renewable natural resources alone, it is estimated the UK uses three times what the planet can sustainably provide. [5]
Despite this enormous impact, resource reduction is routinely overlooked in strategies to cut carbon emissions and protect nature.
The UK has established a world-leading reputation for its approach to carbon emissions, particularly through a rigorous target setting and review process. Ahead of the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, and the G7 summit in Cornwall this year, the UK has the chance to continue to shape global approaches, with a pledge to reduce its own resource consumption in line with planetary boundaries. The report says that the UK should now repeat the success of its approach to net zero and become the first major economy with a target and clear plan to halve resource use.
An overarching target would focus attention across the economy on the incentives, behaviours, business models, and physical and logistical infrastructure needed for better resource management, rather than piecemeal interventions. As businesses recover from the impacts of the pandemic, a clear plan will provide near term certainty and a stable policy environment to encourage circular business models and enable cost savings from resource efficiency.

 The report also says the plan should include targets for specific sectors and critical materials to increase the resilience of the economy as industries will face different challenges, and some materials become potentially rarer or more expensive to source in future.[6]
Green Alliance will also be holding a launch event for the report at noon on Monday, 29 March. Details are available here.
Libby Peake, head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said:
“Ministers need to stop clutching at plastic straws. The UK’s unsustainable resource use is bigger than that. An ambitious target is necessary to focus minds on reducing our consumption to sustainable levels, just like net zero has done for climate action. A legally binding 50 per cent by 2050 reduction target for consumption would provide a clear signal to other nations of the UK’s seriousness to act on this major global economic and environmental issue, and will provide global leadership on resources at this year’s international summits.”

Dr Colin Church, chair of the Circular Economy Task Force and chief executive of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, said:
“Today’s report launch is a very useful reminder that, if we are going to meet our climate goals without doing even more damage to the planet in other ways, we really do need to focus on proper, responsible management of finite resources such as critical raw materials, from their extraction and production, to their use and how we deal with them at end of life. It would be fanciful to believe we can tackle climate change and biodiversity loss without a laser-like focus on how we manage resources.”

Dr Adam Read, external affairs director of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, said:
“This report highlights one of the key failings of resource and waste management thinking, namely a lack of a simple yet overarching resource reduction target, as we have now for carbon emissions. Without reducing consumption and managing resources more efficiently, we cannot deliver on our climate change objectives, nor will we see the necessary leap in circular business models. For too long our policy landscape has been dominated by siloed thinking, targets and initiatives.
“SUEZ, and other resource and waste management companies, need greater clarity on targets and a roadmap that identifies when critical changes need to be delivered, so that we can invest in and build the necessary infrastructure, services and partnerships. We must not miss this opportunity to supercharge the circular economy agenda and put resource management at the heart of a green recovery.”
Notes for editors
Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 40 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.  
Circular Economy Task Force
The research is published as part of Green Alliance’s work for the Circular Economy Task Force, a business led a forum for policy, innovation and business thinking on resource use in the UK. The current members include Kingfisher, PwC, SUEZ, Veolia, Viridor and Walgreens Boots Alliance. The analysis and recommendations in this report are solely those of Green Alliance and do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the task force.
[1] Currently, the main legally binding target for resources and waste in England is the 65 per cent municipal waste recycling target for 2035, adopted in a partial transposition of the EU’s Circular Economy Package. The government also has a number of non-binding strategic commitments, including ‘working towards’ eliminating food waste to landfill by 2030 and avoidable waste by 2050, as well as doubling resource productivity by 2050. As part of the Environment Bill process, they are also expected to develop long-term, legally binding waste prevention and resource productivity targets. These will be welcome, but will not on their own guarantee a reduction in resource use, not least as resource productivity measures resource use against economic output, so absolute resource use could keep rising if the economy grows. A target for resource use reduction, then, should supplement or replace the resource productivity target to deliver absolute benefits to the environment.
[2] Targeting success: why the UK needs a new vision for resource use is available on the Green Alliance website: The report will be discussed at a launch event at noon on 29 March: ‘How do we stop our resource use driving climate change and biodiversity loss?’. It will be chaired by environmental journalists Lucy Siegle, and panellists will include: Dr Ashok Khosla OBE, chair, Development Alternatives, and former co-chair, International Resource Panel, UN Environment Programme; Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, director, Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations, University of Bath; and Dr Colin Church, chief executive, Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining. Details are available here:
[3] UN International Resource Panel, 2019, Global resources outlook 2019: natural resources for the future we want
[4] The UN has suggested that a sustainable level of overall resource consumption is between six and eight tonnes per person per year (See: International Resource Panel, 2014, Managing and conserving the natural resource base for sustained economic and social development). In the UK, we consume twice that, at 14.7 tonnes (See: University of Leeds, 2017, A Good life for all within planetary boundaries, ‘Supplementary information’).
[5] Global Footprint Network, ‘Country trends: United Kingdom’. Data is for 2017.
[6] See, for example, a previous report by Green Alliance, Completing the circle: creating effective UK markets for recovered resources, which documents the UK’s reliance on imported critical raw materials for its low carbon infrastructure. Cobalt, necessary for EV batteries, has been increasing in cost in recent years and has been associated with human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And rare earth elements, vital in the manufacture of wind turbines, EV motors and many household electronics, are associated with supply chain risks and environmental harm during the mining process. It is especially important that we use such critical resources carefully, reducing our reliance on primary extraction and ensuring the products that contain them are kept in use for as long as possible.

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