Environmental policy to optimize material chains

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The preceding sections showed that many measures are available to improve the efficiency of material use in economies. We have also shown that focusing on more efficient material management is likely to be an effective instrument to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the measures are already part of national policy plans, like material recycling and environmentally friendly product design. However, material policies are very seldom designed from the viewpoint of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That would be trend-breaking in itself.

According to the classification presented in this chapter, policy efforts could be targeted at the following categories of material efficiency:

1. technical measures in individual life-cycle stages

2. management of the entire material-product chain

3. sustainable product-service systems.

In regard to point 1, technical measures in individual life-cycle stages could well lead to large reductions in CO2 emissions. Earlier studies on packaging have shown that simple technical measures (e.g., lighter packaging) could reduce the related greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent (Hekkert et al., 2000a). The model described above also showed that considerable gains could still be made in optimizing the waste-management stage. In general, these measures are not very difficult for governments to stimulate. A lot of experience has already been gained in the area of energy efficiency. Exactly the same efforts can be made to reduce material demand.

Stimulating measures in the second category is much more difficult. Significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be reached by improved management of entire material-product chains. Efficient chain management requires that the different actors in a particular chain work together to reach a desired situation. This calls for all actors in the chain to be aware of their responsibilities towards improving the efficiency of the chain. It means that actors must learn to understand the specific stakes that are involved for the other actors in the chain. Reaching these goals is likely to require frequent meetings. Getting the different actors to work together is unlikely to be an autonomous development. Governments can initiate this process by taking the lead in organizing these meetings or by designing certain chain-management regulations in order to force the actors in the entire chain to work together in order to reach policy goals.

In The Netherlands, initial efforts have been made in this area. Efficient chain management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been made part of voluntary agreements on energy efficiency with industrial parties. In other words, industries are allowed to meet their energy-efficiency targets in part by improving material efficiency. Since these measures are often cheaper than energy-efficiency measures (where the cheapest measures have already been taken in The Netherlands), the industrial parties are stimulated to invite other actors involved in the same material chain to reach efficiency goals together. The different parties are encouraged to come up with a fair system for dividing the credits for reducing CO2 emissions among the different actors involved.

Other measures that may improve life-cycle efficiency of materials would be stimulating chain responsibility instead of product responsibility, setting strict standards for recycled content in products and reusability of products, setting up systems for taking back used products in order to enhance recycling rates and stimulating repair facilities to extend the useful life of products.

When policies are developed to optimize material life-cycle management, one should bear in mind the fact that many measures already taken in this area are focused on different goals, such as reducing waste (waste policies) or reducing the environmental impact of product manufacturing (product policies). Specific attention to material life cycles with low greenhouse gas emissions should be integrated with other policies that currently affect material life cycles.

On the third point, policies could also focus on the shift from producing and consuming products towards producing and consuming services. It is not yet clear how much greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced with this type of policy. Many of the mechanisms behind the shift from products to services are also unclear. In fact, there have been only a few successful case studies, and it is difficult to generalize from them. Therefore, it can be said that we do not know a great deal about measures of this type. The most fruitful policy actions in this category of improvement are therefore the development of a wide range of pilot projects to learn more about the dynamics of these measures. Insight into potential reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, the potential market penetration and potential rebound effects is sorely needed.

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