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Academic expertise helps government on the journey to net-zero

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Victoria Darbyshire
Business Development Executive Circular Economy

Two recent University of Edinburgh research projects have helped inform government policy towards their ambitious 2045 net-zero targets at both a local and Scottish national level.

Reducing carbon and energy in household recycling

Annual waste for local authorities can represent between 3 and up to 9% of annual carbon emissions, dependent on whether they are the main processors, or if they subcontract management and process of waste streams.

Midlothian Council worked with the University to identify the embodied carbon within recycling waste streams. The information gained could be used to assist in the net-zero journey and future outcomes. The project was supported by the DDI Data Platforms programme for the South East Scotland City Region Deal.

Professor Sean Smith, Chair of Future Construction at the School of Engineering, led a project to analyse the data types of recycled waste, circular economy usage, and equivalent material embodied carbon or energy

Key findings:

  • 94% of recycling waste collected by the council were being utilised in upcycle uses and additional products
  • The embodied carbon of these recycled materials was 40.8 million kilos (40.8 thousand tonnes) of equivalent CO2
  • The annual embodied carbon and energy savings were equivalent to recharging 5 billion smartphones, or driving 103 million car miles, or heating 5,000 homes per year
  • 18 organisations and companies spread across Midlothian and Scotland utilise the recycled waste materials into new products and processes, supporting jobs, businesses and the environment.
This study shows the levels of carbon savings that can be realised by recycling household materials and could be used to highlight to the public how simple steps taken to separate materials for recycling can make a big carbon impact.

Councillor John Hackett, Midlothian Council’s Cabinet Member with responsibility for waste services.

Net-zero strategy for Scotland’s 2.6 million homes

On a Scottish level to meet the ambitious 2045 targets, Scotland needs to upgrade and retrofit approximately 2.6 million homes, potentially 113,000 homes each year. These proposals have been included in the Scottish Government strategy document ‘Achieving Net Zero in Social Housing’.

These proposals were developed on the back of research by Professor Sean Smith. His group’s research findings recommended the establishment of a task force to retrofit housing to meet Scotland’s ambitious net-zero targets. Details include the technical design, energy performance targets and net-zero housing objectives.

The task force that Professor Smith calls for would focus delivery on the major Scottish housing archetypes reaching across both urban and rural Scotland. A national retrofit task force of this scale would be the first of its kind and would include a wide range of social housing, industry, energy experts and skills development teams within a singular team approach.

Professor Smith’s proposal was developed as part of the ZEST group (zero emissions for housing) led by representatives of local authorities and social housing providers. Professor Smith stated:

With so many countries globally moving towards new retrofit solutions at the same time, this will place significant demands on materials, technologies and skills. Having a pan-Scotland approach to optimise solutions and productivity steered by a technical task force will greatly assist in the sector readiness, delivery and carbon reductions.

Technical innovation will be required to meet Scotland’s objectives and retrofit existing homes across the country. Smith successfully used a similar approach when he led the delivery of innovative technical solutions for new build housing to improve sound insulation performance. This led to over 1.3 million new homes being built across the UK with the new designs, enhanced sound insulation and substantial increase in compliance for regulatory requirements.

Read the full Scottish Government publication.

More details

Professor Sean Smith is Chair of Future Construction, School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh. He is also Chair of the Infrastructure and Environment thematic leadership group within the Scottish Research Partnership for Engineering (SRPe) and serves on several City Region Deal boards and advisory groups for South East Scotland.

Images - Packaging: Alfonso Navarro/Unsplash; Household recycling at Midlothian Transfer Station; Insulation: Eerik Mclean/Unsplash.

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