Material efficiency strategies to reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with buildings, vehicles, and electronics – A review


As one quarter of global energy use serves the production of materials, the more efficient use of these materials presents a significant opportunity for the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With the renewed interest of policy makers in the circular economy, material efficiency (ME) strategies such as light-weighting and downsizing of and lifetime extension for products, reuse and recycling of materials, and appropriate material choice are being promoted. Yet, the emissions savings from ME remain poorly understood, owing in part to the multitude of material uses and diversity of circumstances and in part to a lack of analytical effort. We have reviewed emissions reductions from ME strategies applied to buildings, cars, and electronics. We find that there can be a systematic trade-off between material use in the production of buildings, vehicles, and appliances and energy use in their operation, requiring a careful life cycle assessment of ME strategies. We find that the largest potential emission reductions quantified in the literature result from more intensive use of and lifetime extension for buildings and the light-weighting and reduced size of vehicles. Replacing metals and concrete with timber in construction can result in significant GHG benefits, but trade-offs and limitations to the potential supply of timber need to be recognized. Repair and remanufacturing of products can also result in emission reductions, which have been quantified only on a case-by-case basis and are difficult to generalize. The recovery of steel, aluminum, and copper from building demolition waste and the end-of-life vehicles and appliances already results in the recycling of base metals, which achieves significant emission reductions. Higher collection rates, sorting efficiencies, and the alloy-specific sorting of metals to preserve the function of alloying elements while avoiding the contamination of base metals are important steps to further reduce emissions.

Environmental Research Letters