Now or Never: The IPCC targets net-zero CO2 emissions from the industrial sector
Having already delivered their up-to-date insights into the causes and impacts of global warming, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now released its final report on ways to mitigate these challenges. Based on the work of thousands of scientists, perhaps the most significant takeaway of the report is that there is still time to set things right – providing we take drastic and immediate action.
The IPCC’s Mitigation of Climate Change report explains that rising affluence and consumption around the world, as well as growing urban populations and the related expansion of urban infrastructure, have brought about a massive rise in the demand for materials like cement, steel, aluminum, wood, paper, and plastics. The processes associated with producing these materials are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making them key areas for improvement.
“This latest alarm bell, rung by the world’s foremost authority on the topic, puts into focus the changes we need to make to how our societies are configured. We have many of the solutions already available and it’s time to scale them up. There’s no time to waste,” said Tove Andersen, President and CEO of TOMRA.
Though it may be difficult to achieve, the IPCC claims that net-zero CO2 emissions from the industrial sector are still possible. But it will take a coordinated effort to manage energy and material efficiency, circular material flows, and bring about the essential transformational changes in production processes.
In search of circular material flows
Demand for plastics has been on the up since 1970, with global production now averaging around 350 megatons per year. As this figure continues to rise, developed countries have established an appetite for plastics up to 20 times higher than developing countries, and the pandemic did nothing to slow it down. In fact, our addiction to plastic is so significant that the IPCC suggests even if we’re able to reduce oil consumption in the transport sector, demand to use oil for chemicals, including plastics, will continue to rise (IEA 2019).
According to the IPCC report, only 9-10% of plastic is recycled globally (Saygin and Gielen 2021). Most plastic waste ends up in landfills or is dumped in the environment, with about 12% sent for incineration (Geyer et al. 2017). But why? This sad state of affairs is the result of a range of issues, from a shortage of well-functioning collection systems deployed around the world, to insufficient sorting and high-quality recycling capacity, all of which leads to the loss of valuable materials and the unnecessary exploitation of primary resources.
Of course, these are issues that we at TOMRA work to resolve. Beverage packaging makes up a high portion of the GHG emissions associated with plastics (Poore and Nemecek 2018) and though we capture more than 40 billion used beverage containers every year at TOMRA, it’s a drop in the ocean of what’s being produced. Still, if you look to countries where collection and recycling rates are bolstered by policies like extended producer responsibility, like deposit return systems, there’s plenty of hope on offer. But we cannot wait for policy to keep the momentum, which is why we continue to work with members across the entire value chain – packaging producers, brand owners, retailers, waste management, recyclers and consumers – to accelerate the transformation towards a circular economy.
Even so, the IPCC has something else to say about plastics. No matter if we innovate around container reuse and new types of packaging, to stand any chance of bringing about so much as a 50% reduction in GHG emissions from plastic production by 2050, the material input also has to change.
Let's talk about feedstock
Feedstock is the material input used to make something through an industrial process. In the case of plastics, 99% of the time feedstocks come from oil or gas origins. Normally, that means virgin resources rather than recycled ones. Since the GHG emissions associated with plastic depend on the type of plastic you’re making and the feedstock used to produce it, what goes in at the start determines the impact of what comes out.
To reach net-zero CO2 emissions, the IPCC explains that there are a couple of alternatives available, one of which is to close the loop on plastics. Using recycling processes to produce more efficient feedstock from collected plastic waste, the total emissions associated with plastics production can be greatly reduced. We at TOMRA talked about this in a recent white paper on Holistic Resource Systems.
With the UN Environmental Assembly’s recent agreement to draw up a global treaty for plastics by 2024, anticipation for an international framework to close the loop is high. The IPCC’s latest contributions frame just how important such a coordinated, global policy could be for our shared future. The changes it brings about must reach deep into established patterns across the public and private sectors. We look forward to being part of this ambitious, inspirational, and utterly transformative undertaking.