“Wake up call”: Industry roadmaps and government policies on climate goals insufficient, finds report
10 Nov 2022 --- Today Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) and Eunomia released a report that estimates a 67% chance of global warming staying within 1.5-degrees celsius of pre-industrial levels if cumulative global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stay below 400 gross tonnage CO2 e.
The main conclusion of the report shows that current plans for net zero by 2050 in the materials sector are unlikely to be enough to limit warming to 1.5-degrees celsius. Likely trajectories show that the result could be as high as 2 degrees celsius.
Emissions from the material production sector comprise approximately 25% of global emissions and are therefore of significant importance in reducing emissions in line with the global carbon budget, highlights the report.
A packaging industry “wake-up call”
Current production and consumption trajectories indicate global material use is predicted to double from 2015 to 2060. Therefore, the report finds that mitigating the GHG emissions from these sectors is likely to present a significant challenge.
“What the report says very clearly is that current levels of resource use, even when pushing circularity and decarbonization to the extreme, are incompatible with the climate agenda,” Joan Marc Simon, executive director at ZWE, tells PackagingInsights.
“This report is a wake-up call for the packaging industry and governments about the fact that current roadmaps and policies are incompatible with the climate agenda. Circularity and decarbonization are not enough. In other words: ramping up recycling will not do it, and a radical redesign of policies and product distribution is needed.”
The report details that the industries with the highest contribution to this sector are aluminum, concrete, steel and plastics. The production of these four materials alone is responsible for 78% of GHG emissions from the material production sector.
Some of these industries have produced a net zero pathway to meet net zero by 2050. The report has reviewed each industry’s pathway and modeled whether they will reduce emissions quickly and deeply enough to stay within the global carbon budget.
Simon says there are three ways to reduce material use in packaging:
The first is to reduce the production of packaging used for products that are not being consumed (very much linked to adjusting production to consumption and avoiding overproduction).
Second is to shift from single-use to reusable packaging with high capture rates (which can reduce resource use 10 to 30 times depending on the number of rounds the packaging goes through before becoming waste).
Last is ensuring all packaging is collected for recycling. Today, this is the main focus for policy-makers and the industry, but it has the lowest potential to reduce resource use due to the material losses and energy use associated with every recycling cycle.
When considering the urgency of reducing GHG emissions, there is a possibility that despite the aims of the net zero pathways, the cumulative carbon emissions budget will be exceeded as a cause of the risks associated with deploying unproven technologies in some sectors.
The research aims to allocate a risk factor associated with each intervention and quantify how this influences the likelihood of overshooting the remaining carbon budget. It also attempts to determine whether the overshoot can be reduced by accelerating the adoption model deployed for technological interventions.
More specifically, the impact of deploying abatement technologies after 2030 is substantially less effective than more near-term, widespread, commercial deployment.
What about plastic?
Various life-cycle analyses have shown that the carbon footprint for plastic production is lower than for other materials.
Simon says that ZWE believes the use of plastic should align with the planet’s boundaries. “This report shows how the projections of the plastic sector plan to eat up more than the carbon budget available for cement and concrete, iron and steel, aluminum and plastic combined or 32% of the IPPC’s entire budget for limiting warming for 1.5-degrees celsius.”
“Therefore, the only viable scenario for plastic is to push circularity and decarbonization to the limit together but also incorporate plans to reduce plastic use. Any projections to increase the use of plastic for packaging are in contradiction with the climate agenda.”
“Europe needs a plan to reduce the use of plastic packaging, and we should consider any option that allows us to stay within planetary boundaries,” he adds.
The report clarifies that taking a “business as usual” approach to materials production will lead to exceeding the budget by almost five times and result in a trajectory toward global warming of 2.5-degrees celsius. For the plastics industry alone, this could be as high as 3.5-degrees celsius.
Current industry net zero roadmaps bring the difference to double the budget and a warming of around 1.7-degrees celsius – although with technological risk factored in. This could be as high as 2-degrees celsius.
The plastics industry currently does not have a roadmap to net zero, but projections for this study suggest that a trajectory of 2.2-degrees celsius is possible even with “aggressive decarbonization.” If the other 75% of the global GHG emissions from nonmaterial sectors (primarily from energy use in transport and buildings) can remain within budget, the material sector alone would be responsible for reaching 1.6-degrees celsius under the expected deployment scenario.
It is therefore important to also understand the interconnectedness across all global GHG emissions for carbon budgeting to be explored in more detail, emphasizes the report.
The risk level associated with the realization of decarbonization interventions (factoring in the uncertainty around technological innovations) also makes it possible that the emission reductions achieved in practice will be less than predicted, and therefore the chance of overshooting the remaining carbon budget becomes more likely.
The risk level varies by industry. For the aluminum sector, rapid adoption of existing technologies may bring the sector close to achieving the carbon budget but would involve reversing a trend toward fossil fuel use.
“The report looks at global emissions. Hence, the projections mean different things for different countries. For instance, some countries in the Global South are currently using fewer resources than in the Global North, and despite the overall worldwide reduction, some countries might increase their resource use,” says Simon.
“What this means is that the more countries in the global north consume today, the more drastic the reduction they will need to implement. In this sense, Europe has a big challenge ahead if we want to meet the climate targets that we have set for ourselves,” he concludes.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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