The pace of decarbonization will depend on the availability of technologies and the efficient use of resources in a circular economy

By Sirpa Pietikanen, MEP (EPP Group – Finland)

It is clear that energy efficiency and the transition to renewable energy sources are vital for combatting climate change. Nevertheless, the energy transition is not the sole answer if we ever want to reach net zero, as it can only address up to 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

By moving towards a closed-loop circular economy, we can cut CO2 emissions by 39%. This is because, currently, up to 70 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by material extraction and use. By moving towards more circular, efficient, and sustainable production with a ten-fold resource efficiency, we are able to not only limit the environmental degradation caused by the extraction of raw materials but also notably cut down on product life-cycle emissions.

Up to 80 percent of the environmental impacts of products are defined during the design phase, which is why the early stages of the product design play a crucial part in combatting the products’ full life-cycle environmental impacts.

We need to maximize the product lifecycle and make products reusable, upgradable, modular, and, in the end, completely recyclable. This needs efforts from industry but also from societies, as we need to maximize our recycling capacity and ensure the needed skills and services to scale up the circular economy ecosystems.

Circular practices are needed in all industries, but there is more urgency to decarbonize some sectors than others. In fact, 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be cut by applying circular practices to four key materials. These materials are cement, aluminium, steel, and plastics.

The construction sector is the biggest user of cement and steel while also being one of the biggest users of plastics and aluminium. Therefore, it is no surprise that sustainable buildings and construction are a necessity in order to reach the EU’s environmental and climate targets. The building and construction sector currently accounts for more than a third of the total greenhouse gas emissions, 40 percent of the energy consumption, and around half of the material consumption in the EU.

In order to decarbonize construction, we need alternative and more sustainable materials and technologies to cut down on the emissions of construction products. We also need to make the building blocks modular so that they are easier to reuse in other projects.

The task for us policymakers is to create markets for these more sustainable products and technologies.

In addition, we need to renovate our existing building stock to upgrade them with energy efficiency solutions and to install solar panels to create passive buildings. In that way, our biggest users of energy would become energy-neutral, or, in the best case, energy producers.

Scaling back to a larger perspective, in order to decarbonize our industries and minimise the environmental impacts of products, we need to have a clear and shared understanding of what we are actually measuring. Therefore, we need to develop an LCA that is based on transparent and harmonised indicators for products from cradle to grave rather than each company using different life-cycle methods that are usually not comparable with one another. The current system makes it impossible for consumers to fully differentiate between the most sustainable options and those that are less sustainable.

The one crucial mistake that policymakers keep repeating is the inability to set the bar right at once. The climate neutrality target should be set much earlier than we are doing now if we want to listen to the guidance of climate scientists warning us that it is too late. Therefore, we should also avoid taking sidetracks, as they only waste our critical time and money on halfway solutions that do not even fix the problem. Frankly, when it comes to climate change and biodiversity loss, time is the scarcest resource we have. These sidetracks hindering our efforts are, for instance, biodiesel, plastics to fuel recycling, waste to energy, blue hydrogen, and natural gas dependency.

We need more technologies that are making our industries and production genuinely more sustainable, rather than relying on technologies that are developed to justify the extended use of fossil fuels with CCS.

The problem is that these solutions do not actually solve the cause of the issue, leading us into a loop where one end keeps spitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while the other tries to remove them. In any case, they would not solve other environmental issues such as biodiversity loss, which would lead to an inhabitable planet anyway. In addition, climate manipulation would lead us to the era of “unknown unknowns”. What happens if the technology fails and we just keep burning more and more fossil fuels?

We should be more future-smart with our investments. For example, instead of putting all our money into opening new lithium mines, we should increase our investments in R&D to develop more sustainable alternatives such as sodium-ion batteries, which would make our lithium mines not only environmentally harmful but also just bad investments. This would also help the EU avoid making the same mistake of relying on third countries, such as China, when it comes to critical technologies.

Let’s remember that we do, in fact, have the money for the green transition, but our money is tied to unsustainable investments, such as fossil fuel subsidies. If the problem with solving the crisis is not the money, then what is it?