Preparing for a Zero Carbon Future: Addressing Climate Change Through Resource Efficiency with Dr Graham Hillier
For the latest webinar in our popular and topical series “Preparing for a Zero Carbon Future”, we had the pleasure of being joined by Dr Graham Hillier, Strategic Advisor, CPI. A businessman and academic, as well as a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, Graham looks at climate change through the lens of resource efficiency.
Hosted by Terry Noble, Principal Consultant in the Energy & Utilities Practice at Odgers Interim, Tom Legard, Partner in the Industrials Practice at Odgers Interim, and Virginia Bottomley, Chair of the Board Practice at Odgers Berndtson, this webinar centred around the notion of increasing our resource efficiency instead of trying to change natural systems to fit around our needs.
A little background
“We talk about saving the planet, but the planet is fine, it can manage without us. We are the ones that need saving”, Graham reminds us in the opening to his presentation. Looking back at the history of our planet, he notes that we are only a small part of this vast system, and in order to work with it, we need to change. To do so, Graham argues, we should strive to create a balance between three equally important principles of sustainability.
We need to ensure that we have enough economic wealth to enable us to work on solutions and continue to do so.
Environmental and Natural Resource Factors
We need to consider the natural resources available to us, whilst limiting the impact we have on them and by extension the impact we are having on the planet.
We need to create a society that allows us to live healthy, happy, and fulfilled lives.
Where are we now?
In the past 150 years, life expectancy has doubled in the developed world, with the developing world not far behind. As Graham states, this correlates with rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, suggesting it is strongly linked to our ever-growing world population, although the CO2 concentration per million people in the atmosphere is falling. With continued growth in population come rising food prices, and higher demand on natural resources, putting more pressure on resource efficiency, which, as Graham argues, is precisely what often lets us down.
According to data he analysed, the UK loses 55% of the fuel it uses for electricity generation in conversion, transmission, and distribution losses, while our electricity production from fossil fuels does not average much above 34% efficient. As Graham notes “improving efficiency in general is a significant technical and political opportunity to reduce carbon emissions.”
For Graham, the challenge for us to improve our sustainability is threefold. With an ever-growing population, we need to proactively ensure that food and shelter are provided more efficiently. Simultaneously, as population and affluence grow, the amount of CO2 we emit rises as we consume more resources. The challenge is to use our natural resources more efficiently, being very aware that they are finite.
What can we do?
The nexus for a more sustainable future, Graham argues, lies in the efficient management of our existing resources. As CO2 emissions and waste rise with the growth of population and affluence, so does the need for better solutions on how we use, reuse, recycle, and dispose of our natural resources.
So, what can industries do to tackle resource efficiency? According to Graham, there are four pillars the world needs from industry to become more sustainable:
- Low carbon products with increased functionality
- Processes that use less water and recycle more fresh water
- Processes that use fewer virgin resources and recycle more
- Zero carbon self-sufficient manufacturing
Graham’s message is straight-forward: Pollute less. Consume less. Deliver more.
However, in turn, industry needs the wider community to adapt their consumer needs and habits in order to produce and act differently. Graham notes that the wider community needs to
- Demand and adopt environmentally better performing products;
- Have an appetite for financing in a high-risk environment; and
- Implement proven complimentary technologies across the supply chain.
As a result, industry can adopt low carbon sustainable manufacturing, making more effective use of natural resources. This could be achieved, for instance, through replacing fossil materials with the same molecule manufactured through a more sustainable route, by replacing the original material with a different material sourced more sustainably, or by creating new products, new formulations, new systems that completely replace the original routes and deliver better performance.
Going back to his overarching argument that our focus should lie in using existing resources more efficiently, Graham argues further, that new technology is only part of the solution for a more sustainable future. While he fully acknowledges the importance of and viability of new advances in renewable energy resources, such as hydrogen, Graham notes that the infrastructure needed to roll it out is a challenge, while the production of hydrogen requires as much energy as it yields, calling into question its efficiency compared to fossil economies.
Similarly, the use of electric vehicles, while greener at the point of use, requires a vast amount of electricity requiring a huge increase in generating capacity, unless we find more effective ways of generating green energy.
Becoming more efficient
Referencing a Rwandan prison project from the Ashden Awards, which centred around the building of an anaerobic system, Graham demonstrates what resource efficiency might look like. An anaerobic system, he explains, works when organic waste is sealed into a container and starved off oxygen, which will then cause natural bacteria to act on the sewage producing methane. Methane can then be used for heating and cooking, which in turn, cuts out the need for firewood, while eliminating the sewage problem and producing fertilizer. This example, which is many years old, highlights how efficiency can not only decrease our reliance on natural resources, but might also eliminate waste products, which ultimately leads to a much better sustainable cycle.
And efficiency can be achieved in any area. Recalling an example from his own life when he worked in a plastic film manufacturing plant, Graham reflects that by increasing the prime product efficiency from 40% to 60%, they achieved a 75% increase in value for the product. This increased efficiency made a huge difference to both their economical as well as their operational performance.
All of these points lead Graham to advocate for a whole systems approach, in which materials, manufacturing, and use are integrated. So, what could this look like? According to Graham, we need to create a ‘low carbon resource efficient community’, which is based on an integrated set of projects, that combine industrial, residential, agricultural, and transport applications. This will ultimately help exploit the inherent strengths of communities and regions and deliver economic wellbeing.
Graham argues further that in order to achieve this idea, we must facilitate the link between research, development, and commercial interests to create value through application development. We should also nurture a range of supply partnerships, which are appropriate for the end user to increase adoption, as well as build supply chain networks to further develop and strengthen the UK industry base.
All things considered, Graham calls for a balanced approach to tackling climate change through resource efficiency by pointing out that there is no single correct answer. Instead, we need to consider a variety of factors, relying on common sense, economics, social environment, and manufacturing processes, “and thinking across those boundaries is something we need to encourage”, he argues.
While we will never be able to fully decarbonise, we can improve efficiency and use of products to reduce carbon consumption. We should also harvest the potential of using and reusing naturally derived or waste feedstocks, as well as growing plants to consume CO2. In essence, we should all strive to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as we can, while championing for change across industries to consume as little energy as possible and drive collaborative interdisciplinary working to adopt our behaviour.
Future challenges are manifold, Graham concludes, but we can all play an active part in reducing our carbon footprint.
If you would like to find out more about our Industrial Manufacturing or Energy & Utilities Practices’ and how we try to champion for a zero carbon future, please get in touch with Tom Legard or Terry Noble.