June 2024 – A paper resulting from the efforts of CircEUlar researchers together with collaborators from the sister projects CIRCOMOD and CO2NSTRUCT has been published in Nature Climate Change, outlining innovative strategies to significantly reduce both resource consumption and fossil fuel emissions. 

By phasing out fossil fuels, the production of raw materials is reduced by eliminating the need to extract natural gas, oil and coal. This in turn, reduces the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But the key question is whether the demand for raw materials and land for renewable energy, electric vehicles and sustainable transport infrastructure will have additional social and environmental impacts.

To limit these problems, it is necessary to keep energy and resource requirements as low as possible through demand-side measures. “Our study shows that there is considerable potential to reduce energy and resource consumption without having to impose restrictions,” notes the CircEUlar partner Felix Creutzig (MCC) who led the study.

Material extraction and waste streams, the construction of new infrastructure, the associated land use changes and the provision of new types of goods and services related to decarbonization will create social and environmental pressures at local to regional levels,” explains Volker Krey (IIASA) who coordinates the CircEUlar project. “So-called rare earths are, for example, needed for wind turbines and electric cars, lithium and cobalt for batteries, and construction materials for green infrastructure.” 

Our study provides an overview of the social, ecological, and geopolitical risks of these materials. These include the displacement of people from residential areas where the raw materials are extracted, health effects due to toxic emissions, injuries and deaths due to occupational accidents, cartel structures, corruption and other grievances,” adds coauthor Helmut Haberl (BOKU) partner of CircEUlar

While the need for materials to support a clean energy infrastructure is substantial, it remains significantly lower than the demand generated by the ongoing reliance on fossil fuels. Demand-side strategies, such as improving resource efficiency, replacing individual mobility with shared or public transport, reusing or recycling existing materials, and thermal refurbishment of buildings play a decisive role here. 

The CircEUlar researchers point out the importance of models that promote shared mobility (such as car- and ride-sharing), which effectively reduce the demand for private cars. This transformative approach not only significantly reduces material consumption, but also reduces emissions. “Our study emphasizes the dual benefits of demand-side solutions in mitigating climate change and reducing material consumption,” says Creutzig. “By focusing on efficiency and circular economy principles, we can achieve significant environmental and social benefits.”

The research team calls for increased interdisciplinary cooperation and new ideas in policy design to make effective use of these demand-side measures. They underscore the importance of integrating such strategies into global climate protection plans to ensure a holistic approach to sustainable development.

Creutzig, F., Simoes, S.G., Leipold, S., Berrill, P., Azevedo, I., Edelenbosch, O., Fishman, T., Haberl, H., Hertwich, E., Krey, V., et al. (2024). Demand-side Strategies Key for Mitigating Material Impacts of Energy Transitions. Nature Climate Change DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-024-02016-z