Sustainable Materials with both eyes open

A new book has been published by a research team here in Cambridge. In very much the same tradition as David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy without the hot air, this one looks at the environmental effects of producing and using five key materials – steel, aluminium, plastic, paper and cement – which between them cause about 20% of world carbon dioxide emissions, and what would be needed to cut those emissions by 50% by 2050. (Carbon dioxide emissions are used as a proxy for other environmental damage, which to a first approximation tend to be proportional to energy usage.)

I have to admit it goes into considerably more detail in places than I want to know about – but I’m glad they’ve considered so much – but the style throughout is very friendly and clear. They’ve even included music and produced “the first album written for the 300 million workers in metals industries worldwide.”

The broad conclusions are that any sort of BAU model just isn’t going to work. There’s already a big incentive to reduce energy costs and most producers are not too far away from theoretical limits. Nor is generating electricity from cleaner sources going to suffice, unless you’re very optimistic about CCS or similar techniques. So we need to include better design to use less metal, longer lifecycles for products and recycling.

The best thing is that the book, again like MacKay’s, is freely accessible from their website. The summary slides here provide a helpful way in.

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