Magazine - Climate Justice

Reclaiming Materials Part 01 | The Emissions Xray

by Isabella Rose Nelson

The Emissions Xray

Reclaiming Materials is a series looking to explore our interwoven relationship with materials in the context of climate change. Part one presents an overview of global emissions and how the four main resources, minerals, ores, fossil fuels, and biomass, flow into the seven key societal needs.

In 2020 during a short period of self-isolation, I came across a wide variety of objects while clearing my family home in South-East England which was about to be sold. Things kept in bags and boxes unnecessarily over the years had grown into a few rooms full of stuff. While I collected and sorted items to be recycled and thrown away, including obsolete electrical equipment, worn in school books, various plastics, clothing, shoes, packaging and other household waste, I realised how little I knew about the materials in my hands. Things used everyday – paper, polyester, cables, pens. What were they made of? How were they produced? And where? I felt completely disconnected from my environment.

I’m not saying we need to go back to a time when all the things we use are produced in our local community, I love living in a global world and all the benefits it brings. But it does seem alarming that the world is consuming 100 billion tonnes of materials every year and I don’t even know how my toothbrush is made, where it comes from, or what happens to it when I throw it away. These materials, including plastics, concrete, steel, and silicon chips, to name a few, enable us to live our lives the way we do today.

Moving from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution transformed the way we live and work. Powered by burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Technological changes that occurred during this time enabled us to increase our use of natural resources and mass produce goods.

We now have the ability to order almost anything online and have it delivered to our homes, a delux rapid egg cooker, foldable dog pool, or giant inflatable plastic unicorn, could be yours in just a few days.

The trouble is that alongside industrialisation a linear economic model emerged which has held strong ever since. A linear economy deals with resources through extraction, production, consumption, and waste.

After more than a century and a half of industrialisation, deforestation, and large-scale agriculture, quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen to record levels not seen in three million years. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is directly linked to the average global temperature on Earth. The concentration has been rising steadily, and mean global temperatures along with it, since the time of the Industrial Revolution; the most abundant greenhouse gas, accounting for about two-thirds of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, is largely the product of burning fossil fuels.

Climate change is a defining global issue of our time. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding. The negative impact of climate change includes biodiversity loss, species extinction, flooding, drought, and forest fires. A report published by the think tank Circular Economy explains that in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change we need to double the amount of materials being recycled. The report shows that of the 100 billion tons of materials flowing through our global economy every year, currently around 8% are cycled back into the system.

A circular economy is commonly believed to be one solution to help reduce the enormous tons of greenhouse gases we emit each year. A circular economy is defined as a model of production and consumption which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.

So as I stumble through daily environmental dilemmas, trying to understand what I can and can’t recycle, I wanted to look at the wider perspective. Below is a key section from The Circularity Gap Report 2021 exploring the connection between materials use and our global emissions by illustrating how emissions flow through the global economy. It assesses the global economy through two lenses that are critical to circularity: emissions (Carbon) and materials (Mass). Applying mass-carbon thinking, it assesses both the carbon emissions footprint, as well as the mass factors behind meeting key societal needs, such as housing, mobility and nutrition.

Part two will be an in-depth look at the birth of plastic, its history, social and environmental impact. For now here’s The Emissions Xray Behind Global Societal needs.

To satisfy all global needs and wants, we emitted 59.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019. The emissions x-ray shows how the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions 70% are ultimately generated through material handling —whether for the clothes we wear, the phones we own, or the meals we eat.

Beginning from the left-hand side, we see how four types of resources—fossil fuels, minerals, ores and biomass—are extracted (Take) and put to use in the global economy. Fossil fuels are responsible for by far the most global embodied emissions 65%, with petroleum fueling much of the globe’s transportation, plus coal and natural gas providing inputs for electricity, heat and industrial processes. The second-largest source of embodied emissions is the production of biomass through agricultural and forestry processes, with significant emissions 26% related to land use. This delivers us food products, timber and fuelwood, as well as fibres for the textiles industry. The extraction, basic processing and use of both ores and minerals, together with waste handling, have the smallest emissions contribution at 8%.

It is interesting to observe how the switch between the emissions related to materials and energy occurs. Notice that before energy carriers such as oil, gas, coal and fuelwood undergo transformation (Process) into refined materials, and energy and heat, they represent the majority of the emissions 70%; while, at this stage, materials are only responsible for 30%. These materials for industry and construction then enter manufacturing and industrial processes in the form of plastic, rubber, iron, cement and wood products.

Added to these materials is process heat and electricity, as well as energy carriers such as oil derivatives, gas and coal.

They are then transformed (Produce) into products such as electronics, capital equipment, construction materials and food. At this point, the balance between emissions related to energy versus materials has shifted to be almost fifty-fifty. Materials together represent 51% of all emissions, while the energy used to heat and cool buildings, light our homes and workspaces, as well as the energy that is used for personal and freight transport, represents the remaining 49%. However, ultimately – at the point of final consumption (Provide) – both freight transport and the lighting, heating and cooling of non-residential buildings also serve material purposes: the emissions related to energy become 30% and materials, 70%. Now, a huge proportion of the emissions that were at first associated with energy carriers have gradually become embodied into finished goods and services which, in turn, satisfy the seven societal needs.

Providing Mobility, Housing and Nutrition to the world accounts for almost 70% of global emissions. Mobility leads the way with an emissions footprint of 17.1 billion tonnes. This is primarily the result of fossil fuel combustion across passenger and freight transport. The production of automobiles, trucks, trains and aeroplanes is relatively limited in emissions contributions. Responsible for the second largest footprint is Housing, at 13.5 billion tonnes of emissions. Housing’s hefty footprint comes down to the vast extraction, transport and construction activities it entails, as well as the energy used to light, heat and cool dwellings. Third in line is the provision of food for Nutrition with 10 billion tonnes of emissions. Land use associated with the production of food, but also fibres and clearing for expansion of urban centres, is responsible for about 4 billion tonnes of emissions.

The remaining 30% of emissions flow into satisfying communications, services, consumables and healthcare. At 6.4 billion tonnes of emissions, services is the biggest of the smaller needs. The footprint for service provision includes the buildings and energy required for educational institutions, museums and other public-service properties, as well as the material needs for their functioning. Communication is responsible for 3.5 billion tonnes of emissions. These largely fuel communication infrastructure as well data storage and communication devices. Consumables account for 5.6 billion tonnes of emissions for the production of clothing, personal health products and consumer electronics. With the smallest footprint of all the societal needs and wants, Healthcare’s footprint of 3 billion tonnes is mostly related to hospital buildings, healthcare equipment such as MRI scanners and the production of medical disposables and pharmaceuticals.


Here are some links to the original report for further reading…


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