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Industry’s big green drive needs far more direction

By Will Stirling

The UK government’s launched the UK Hydrogen Strategy in an effort to reach its goal of 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030. The strategy estimates that these measures could create 9,000 jobs and be worth £900m by 2030, rising to 100,000 jobs and £13bn by 2050.

These are big numbers and should be welcomed. But they only form a modest part of a total mass of activity required if the UK’s to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 and become “net zero” by 2050.

It’s an ambitious target. Although some might say it’s unachievable, given the slow progress Britain and other countries have made to reduce emissions since the big targets set by the Paris Agreement in 2015, which set out aims to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C.

No direction for manufacturers

Scanning the manufacturing sector in August 2021, in the build-up to November’s COP26 UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, there’s a lot of industrial activity, some at large scale, to reduce the carbon and waste in production, consumption, transportation and packaging.

What comes across is the lack of a “gold standard” or single certified programme, or national coordination, or even an approved government agency or industry group. Manufacturers need advice on implementing appropriate carbon-saving measures while limiting business risk and how they can track and report their “green” progress to government and the media.

“Green” reporting is done within industry verticals. The actions seem to have no timetable and there’s no single source that can verify the outcomes – total carbon savings and the shortfall to meet UK net-zero targets. It’s not even clear whether the leading business groups for industries – the CBI, the Food & Drink Federation, Make UK for manufacturers, the British Plastics Federation etc – are obliged or tasked to collate their sector’s net-zero performance and report it to BEIS, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

However, there are some great examples of this work within sectors and product categories.

The National Cup Recycling Scheme

The UK consumes 2.5 billion paper cups a year, a mind-boggling number. That’s about 42 paper cups for every adult over 21-years old in the UK, per year.

A project led by papermaker James Cropper plc, and other packaging companies that have developed technology to recycle these cups into paper fibres and skim off the glue that makes them difficult for normal recycling, led to the National Cup Recycling Scheme.

Waste contractors deliver tonnes of paper cups to an authorised re-processor. The amount of material recycled is measured by Valpak, the scheme administrator, who tops-up the contractor’s fee they receive from the re-processors. Luxury paper producer James Cropper in Cumbria has upcycled 150 millions cups since it launched its “CupCycling” scheme in September 2017. Its retail partners include Burberry, Selfridges and Hallmark cards, among others.

“As well as coffee cups, our plant processes offcuts from cup production,” says Cropper’s spokesperson Julie Tomlinson. “We’re also looking to bring on-board other waste materials to process through the plant and we will be announcing a new project shortly.”

James Cropper’s facility is upcycling every waste paper product that it receives and has plenty of additional capacity – up to 500 million cups per annum. “Our ambition is that 50% of the fibre we use in papermaking will come from waste sources by 2025,” adds Julie.

Progress in transport

The extreme global weather events of recent years, including the terrible fires that have raged in Australia, the US, Canada, Greece, Turkey and Algeria, point to the need for rapid action and at huge scale.

Some say the single biggest action that the human race can take for climate change is to cut air travel and to transition from fossil-fuel based, or ICE, road vehicles to low-carbon car platforms. Interestingly, transportation, including aviation, accounts for just 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector. It falls behind energy and heat production, agriculture and land use, and industry (manufacturing) which accounts for 21%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In the UK, some of the most visible work in this area is in the automotive and aviation industries, partly because the media find these sectors more interesting and visible.

There are several exciting aviation projects to shift from conventional turbofan engines to hydrogen power and electric powertrains. For hydrogen, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions Project Fresson aims to be the world’s first passenger aircraft that uses hydrogen fuel cell technology for propulsion. And Airbus has a programme called “Zero-E,” with designs for hydrogen and hybrid turboprop (propeller) and turbofan aircraft for sizes up to 200 passengers. The timescale? The first zero emission aircraft plans to launch by 2035.

Paul Perera, an expert on green aviation and a former director at GKN, says: “Many of the changes hydrogen brings to an aircraft relate to areas the UK leads in. For example, the wings will likely be different in design but will still form an integral part of the aerostructure. This is good news as wings represent about 90% of aerostructure work for UK-based operations such as GKN and Spirit AeroSystems.” How do we source the hydrogen? Renewable energy. Some details of how hydrogen feedstock can be supplied via the Humber’s Gigastack project.

There is far more low-carbon activity in automotive, where the car industry is adhering to the government’s 2035 deadline for the ban on manufacturing new ICE vehicles in the UK. The Advanced Propulsion Centre, a government-funded centre at the University of Warwick looking to accelerate net-zero automotive technology and supply chains, has just announced £91 million in funding for four very cool green car technologies. REE.Auto, will receive £42m of it to radically redesign commercial electric vehicles by moving the steering, braking, suspension and powertrain into the wheel arch – literally within the wheel. This will allow more autonomous capability, storage space and design options for the vehicle chassis.

In food and drink, Coca-Cola pledged in June that all its small bottles in the UK, produced by subsidiary Coca-Cola Enterprises, will be made using 100% recycled plastic. This will save, it claims, 29,000 tonnes of virgin plastic each year. And there are many, many individual examples of companies in all sectors reducing carbon emissions.

But, given we’ve reached a now-or-never point as we look to avoid temperatures rising more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, there seems to be little coordination of the best CO2 reduction practices across the primary manufacturing sectors. Many still seem to be ad hoc actions. The scale of each is at the company’s discretion and has no reporting obligations. If this is wrong, the coordination is poorly publicised.

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