Opinion

What can the materials transition learn from the energy transition?

Materials sectors are lagging behind their energy counterparts, and it’s time to pick up the pace

Guy Bailey

Head of Intermediates and Applications

Guy leads a team of analysts focused on plastics, fibres and sustainability in the chemicals value chain.

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Rising populations, growing incomes and the dawn of a truly technological age have fuelled our appetite for materials. Right now, materials use is on a course to double by 2050, with waste generation increasing by 70%. It’s putting an unsustainable burden on our planet.

It’s time for a materials transition, with the global scale and ambition of the energy transition. Regulators, governments and consumers alike must all play a role as we collectively account for, and minimise, the impact of extracting and disposing of raw materials.

We explored this topic in depth in our recent insight ‘Welcome to the Materials Transition’, which highlighted the potential impact on the packaging industry and plastic demand. Fill in the form to read this complimentary insight in full. Or read on for three common drivers of the energy and materials transitions – and why they show that the materials sectors have to pick up the pace.

1. Changing societal preferences

Climate change is a headline-grabber, and the subject of much debate and protest. Opinions may differ on the best way forward, but what’s clear is that there is increasing concern about the impact of climate change, and that concern is influencing consumer and voter sentiment around the world. It’s a hot topic in the US election, for example, where American voters are faced with a choice between two very different visions of energy policy. Whatever the outcome, the energy industry is already in the midst of a massive transformation, with Big Oil evolving to play a new role.

Similarly, there’s no escaping the shift in consumer sentiment around materials. There is increasing concern about the impact of material excavation, from both an environmental and social perspective. The issues are broad and far-reaching, from the effect of sand extraction on fragile ecosystems, to the use of child labour in artisanal mining. The other end of the materials lifecycle has also captured attention – Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series famously, and powerfully, shone a spotlight on plastic waste management and disposal. Momentum is gathering, and industry must be seen to embrace the change.

2. Political and regulatory response

The political and regulatory response to climate change has given the energy transition clear but formidable targets. Global ambition was established with the 2015 Paris Accord, where the governments of nearly 200 countries agreed to act to limit global warming to “well below” 2 °C. Net zero goals have been put in place across jurisdictions, and the EU, for example, has plans for a new carbon tax on imports that it hopes to have in place by 2023.

On the materials side, we’re seeing the start of a similar shift in the political and regulatory landscape. Measures vary, but the direction of travel is the same. China implemented a ban on several types of waste imports in 2018, with a significant impact on the global recycling industry. The European Commission launched a Circular Economy Action Plan in March 2020, which provides a framework to reduce material intensity and support new business models across sectors as diverse as packaging, apparel, construction and food. The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in demand for some single-use products but while this may have put the war on plastic on pause, it’s far from over. Industry simply cannot ignore the need to stay ahead of tightening regulation.

3. Technological innovation

The energy transition is fuelled by innovation. Investment is being channelled into a range of incremental and revolutionary technologies to find low or zero carbon power and harness renewable resources. Our Future Energy series highlighted just some of the technologies shaping the transition away from fossil fuels toward a decarbonised future, including hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and offshore wind. There’s no room for complacency, however. In one recent study, we laid out the technology roadmap to a net zero North Sea – and the innovation gaps that must be closed.

Technology will also drive the materials transition. Products are being redesigned to reduce their materials impact – light-weighting is a key strategy in the automotive industry, for example, and in packaging we’re seeing brand innovation on both sides of the paper versus plastic debate. New materials, including a wide range of bio-sourced and bio-degradable plastics, are being developed and commercialised. Big data and AI is being deployed to increase material efficiency. And waste management technology is evolving too, with chemical recycling as one emerging solution.

Is the transition moving fast enough?

Materials-consuming industries can take a great deal of inspiration from the energy industry’s experience. For one thing, the transformation underway shows that systemic change is possible. The way we power the world we live in is changing. But it isn’t necessarily changing fast enough – our latest Energy Transition Outlook shows that the world is not yet on course to meet the targets set out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. More needs to be done, quickly and effectively – it calls for sustained investment and rapid scale-up of new technologies.

That should galvanise the materials sectors, who currently lag behind their energy sector counterparts in developing more sustainable business models. Now is the time to pick up the pace. Our ‘sustainable future’ scenario calls for binding global regulatory targets, using the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive as a model, and significant investment into innovative technologies and recycling capacity.

What does the sustainable future scenario look like? Can economic growth be decoupled from material consumption? What does transformation look like in the plastics industry? Fill in the form at the top of this page to read ‘Welcome to the Materials Transition’ in full.