Often overlooked in climate agreements, materials are an untapped resource when it comes to reducing emissions. In this rich and varied interview we are joined by Drawdown Advisor David Allaway to look at how we can better use materials through reducing resource use, cleaner production and better management and disposal.
Materials are integral to the global economy and modern life. Contrary to popular belief, material use is growing and remains high in western countries. Indeed, the nature of globalised supply chains has muddied the waters when it comes to tracking emissions as many of the materials that are consumed in the west originate and are refined in countries of the global south, which often rely on more carbon intensive forms of energy and production. Given the complex nature of supply chains, many communities struggle to track consumption based emissions, something exacerbated by the fact that they have been regarded as outside the scope of regulatory bodies and climate agreements.
We cover recycling which, as David points out, is often wrongly thought of as an extension of the waste system. Instead, he tells us that to get the most from recycled products it is better to regard recycled materials as raw feedstock for new products, as the real greenhouse gas benefits come from reducing the need for raw materials. He also adds words of caution regarding the drive towards a circular economy. Circularity for its own sake risks obscuring the bigger picture, as paradoxically some single use items may be less environmentally harmful than recycled alternatives.
Drawdown’s number one climate solution, refrigerant management, is included in this sector and so naturally we give this due consideration. The potential in reducing emissions from refrigerants is largely due to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) a key chemical in fridges and air conditioning units. Given that HFCs are several thousand times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, it is essential they be disposed of properly at end of life. We talk about progress in this area, notably in the 2016 Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol, which binds nation states to phasing out HFCs. We also look at alternative cement and how waste products, such as fly ash that comes from burning coal, can be harnessed to make more ecological forms of concrete.
David also stresses that businesses and consumers can take action to reduce material footprint and highlights the need for greater transparency through a reliable standardised system of carbon accounting. Lastly, we discuss the need to reduce consumption of materials and briefly touch on the limits of using GDP as a measure of economic progress and how absolute decoupling of resource use from economic growth is not happening anywhere the scale required.
David Allaway is a Drawdown Advisor and senior policy analyst in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Materials Management Programme, where he leads projects related to materials and waste management and greenhouse gas accounting. He serves as the technical specialist in solid waste prevention and is leading several projects to reduce waste generation and the environmental impacts of materials and waste in Oregon. Previously, David was employed for over ten years at an environmental consulting firm where he served as project manager for solid waste planning, waste reduction, hazardous waste, and energy and water conservation projects throughout the United States.
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