RESCUE – Resource-Efficient Pathways to Greenhouse-Gas-Neutrality

picture symbolizing the interdependencies between greenhouse gas emissions and raw material useClick to enlarge
Raw material use effects greenhouse gas emissions – but low carbon technologies need resources, too.
Source: Umweltbundesamt

In the RESCUE project, the German Environment Agency (UBA) explores the nexus between climate protection and associated resource requirements. Using six scenarios, different development paths are explored and insights gained on how to reduce future resource use and greenhouse-gas emissions in Germany.

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A systems approach is required to explore the mutual dependencies and feedback loops between climate protection policies and associated resource requirements.  The production and subsequent consumption of goods and services are the main driving forces behind energy and resource demands. Extraction and use of fossil and nuclear energy carriers can have negative impacts on the quality of our environment in several ways.  A conventional energy system requires not only raw materials for power plant construction, but a large amount of fossil or nuclear fuels as primary energy carriers which make up for a large share of current raw material consumption. Once used, they cannot be recovered. 

However, in an energy system based on renewables most raw materials required remain in the anthropogenic stock and can be recycled for further use: flow resources such as wind or solar energy are used for energy generation, thus no raw materials are consumed for the operation of wind or solar power plants. Most of the materials embodied in wind or photovoltaics installations can be recovered at end-of-life. This gives the opportunity to increase the creation of value in an economy, if materials can be recycled within the same economic system and less raw materials need to be imported.


A “greenhouse-gas (GHG) neutral Germany 2050” as starting point

How an industrialized country like Germany can cut its GHG emissions by 95 per cent, was illustrated by the German Environment Agency in 2014 in the scenario study „Germany in 2050: a greenhouse-gas neutral country“. Initiating such a transition process will require measures that go beyond immediate GHG abatement. Understanding the resource and raw material demands for the transition appears just as important. In this context, relevant resources and raw materials include land, water, soil, air, flow resources like wind or solar energy, ecosystem services, next to biotic and abiotic raw materials. Raw material demands should be analyzed with regard to the absolute amounts required and how this demand changes over time. Another interesting aspect is how a transition of the energy sector effects other parts of the economy, and vice versa.


Research questions

Against this background, a set of research questions has been defined for the new project:

  • Which plausible transition pathways could turn Germany into a GHG-neutral and resource efficient economy, without negative impacts on the environment?
  • What individual measures are required?
  • How does raw materials demand develop in the course of the transition?
  • How are raw materials demand and GHG emission abatement interrelated?
  • What approaches to a low-carbon economy result in less resource use and GHG emissions?

The six scenarios of the RESCUE project

To explore these issues, six scenarios were developed and constructed in the course of the project. They share the assumption that Germany will be GHG-neutral or nearly GHG-neutral until 2050. Raw materials demand and the GHG emission reduction up to 2050 vary between the scenarios.

GreenEe1 & 2: Germany – resource efficient and greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral – Energy efficiency 

The development of GHG-emissions and raw materials demand until 2050 is modelled in RESCUE on the basis of assumptions made in the previous project “Germany in 2050: a greenhouse gas neutral country”. Raw materials demand simulations include materials such as biomass, fossil energy carriers, metal ores and non-metallic minerals. The ambitious increase of energy efficiency, including the tapping of yet unrealized energy efficiency potential throughout all economic sectors, is the main characteristic of this scenario.

While in the GreenEe1 scenario, the domestic production capacities and therefore exports are continuously increasing, in GreenEe2 a more balanced trade situation is assumed, i.e., imports and exports converge and domestic production capacities decrease.

GreenLate: Germany – resource efficient and GHG neutral – late transition 

Also this scenario comes close to GHG-neutrality. However, the transition process sets in at a later point in time compared to GreenEe. Also, energy efficiencies are raised in a less ambitious manner. Consequently, GHG-emissions have to be reduced more radically and within a shorter period of time.

GreenMe: Germany – resource efficient and GHG neutral – Material efficiency 

This scenario focuses on raising material efficiency in an ambitious manner and throughout all economic sectors in addition to the measures assumed in GreenEe. This includes, e.g., the increased use of recycled materials, increasing recycling rates, light-weighting in transport, and the use of more durable products. 

GreenLife: Germany – resource efficient and GHG neutral – lifestyle changes 

GreenLife analyzes how changes of lifestyle and behavior, in addition to measures in GreenEe and GreenMe, influence GHG-emissions and raw material consumption. Current trends as well as smaller niche tendencies for a more environmentally friendly behavior (e.g., increasing car- and ride-sharing) are scaled up to build this scenario. 

GreenSupreme: Germany – resource efficient and GHG neutral – Minimizing future GHG emissions and raw material consumption

An ambitious transition pathway will combine the most effective measures from the previous scenarios in order to reduce GHG-emissions and raw material demand up to 2050.


Main results of the RESCUE-project

The Green-scenarios are published in the RESCUE-study and were presented in November 2019 during an international conference.

The RESCUE study highlights that GHG-neutrality in Germany together with a significant reduction of primary raw material consumption is possible through bold and ambitious actions. For this, significant progress at all levels is necessary. Implementing only technical solutions for lowering GHG-emissions and raw material consumption is not sufficient. Instead, a broad range of strategies and measures targeting substitution, avoidance, and natural carbon sinks to influence GHGs in the atmosphere are needed, including: 

  1. Substitution: Replacing GHG- or resource-intensive technologies and products with lower impact alternatives.
  2. Avoidance: Reducing the demand for GHG- and resource-intensive products and activities via gains in efficiency, sufficiency, and increased materials circularity. 
  3. Natural carbon sinks: The extraction of already emitted CO2 from the atmosphere through natural carbon sinks such as forests in order to mitigate GHG-emissions.

The use of natural carbon sinks is central for successful climate protection. However, sinks do not replace substitution and avoidance. Natural carbon sinks (i.e., sustainable agricultural and forest management) allow already today the sustainable removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and provide synergies to other environmental policy domains such as biodiversity protection. 

The RESCUE-study shows that limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °C and enabling a more equitable use of raw materials requires bold efforts at national scale similar to the GreenSupreme-scenario. Acting in a timely and ambitious manner would allow for a more balanced combination of strategies to target substitution, avoidance, and sinks which are necessary for enabling joint climate protection and natural resource conservation. Otherwise, climate protection will exceed a point beyond which the goal of GHG-neutrality can no longer be achieved.

Following developments for Germany as outlined in the Paris Agreement requires the reduction of territorial GHG-emissions by 70 % until 2030 compared with 1990 levels. Current policies and targets of the German Federal Government lack behind the necessary actions for achieving this goal and are not enough for Germany to live up to its responsibilities. A significant raise in the level of ambition regarding GHG emissions reductions is necessary in Germany until 2030.

The interdependencies between climate protection and natural resource conservation require a common overarching way of thinking and integrated action. For example, all Green-scenarios have in common that fossil fuels in all areas (i.e., for electricity, fuels, and raw materials/feedstocks) will be phased out. The technically feasible rapid phase-out of coal-fired power generation has benefits for both mitigating climate change and reducing the consumption of raw materials, and should therefore be pursued. The temporary additional demand for raw materials for the transformation of the energy system can be reduced by a technology mix and corresponding technological developments for substitution and avoidance. The build-up of renewables should take place in a globally coordinated manner in order to avoid demand peaks for individual materials. The phase-out of coal-based power generation should take place by 2030 and the complete phase-out of coal use (including for heat and raw materials/feedstocks in industry) by 2040 at the latest. All fossil fuels should be phased out completely at least by 2050. 

A societal transition towards more environmentally conscious life-styles is needed, considering both the supply and demand side. In order to initiate such a transition, policy-making needs to create the suitable regulatory and economic framework conditions as well as educational policy measures. 

A clear commitment towards ambitious climate protection and resource conservation policy by policy-makers is needed. In addition to setting ambitious policy goals (both for climate protection and natural resource conservation) the necessary policy and economic framework conditions for achieving these goals needs to be created. In addition, corresponding European and international efforts are required that are in line with the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030. In particular, resource conservation needs to be anchored in bilateral and multilateral agreements (e.g. commodity partnerships, trade agreements, dialog with multilateral organizations and platforms (e.g., G7/20, EU, UNEP, etc.)), and internationally binding targets need to be agreed on the use and efficiency of raw materials. 

Measures must be taken by Germany to support global GHG-reductions and the use of raw materials through financial aid, technological support, and knowledge transfer. The phase-out of the use of fossil fuels and the protection and expansion of natural carbon sinks should be high on the priority list. Products placed on the German market (including imported products) should meet high requirements in terms of low GHG-emissions and material efficiency, referring to the entire supply chain, in order to strengthen global change towards climate protection and natural resource conservation.

Urgent action is required and every contribution (considering both production and consumption) is important! 

A detailed overview of the central study results can be found here.