Opinion - 06/June/2018

Making energy savings more sustainable

Energy efficiency is vitally important, but policy makers and industry leaders could do more harm than good if they do not ensure that energy savings support wider environmental and sustainability goals, argue Luis Gabriel Carmona and Kai Whiting, researchers at the University of Lisbon, Portugal

Companies ensuring that energy efficiency gains support environmental protection and overall sustainability will be industry leaders, insist Luis Gabriel Carmona and Kai Whiting, researchers at the University of Lisbon, Portugal


Energy efficiency is vitally important to reduce emissions and avoid runaway climate change. We need, however, to ensure that policy and business decisions related to energy savings are coherent with a holistic vision of sustainable development. They must not operate in vacuum, whereby energy efficiency gains come at the expense of other resources and environmental issues, which are, at best, relegated to second place.

Many world leading businesses are now promoting and employing an approach known as Industry 4.0, whereby “smart factories” make the most of the newest developments in technology, including the mass adoption of robotics, sensors and computers, to revolutionise the type of materials we use and how we interact with them.

Many regard Industry 4.0 as inevitably sustainable because it is focused on creating innovative designs and products that provide a greater level of customer satisfaction and functionality with fewer materials and lower carbon emissions. These gains, however, often depend on complex electronic components that contain rare earths and precious metals. In the drive for energy efficiency and renewable energies this issue is being largely ignored.

Let us look at the car industry, for example, and the push for lighter vehicles in the name of reduced fuel consumption, ergonomics or enhanced performance. This generally means replacing steel and glass parts with rare-earth elements and plastic composites. This practice impacts on end-of-life recoverability as steel and plain glass are readily recyclable while mixed plastics and rare earth elements are more likely to end up in landfill. This can mean more environmental damage in the name of energy efficiency.

Use new tools

For Industry 4.0 to be sustainable, we must recognise that energy savings, renewables and materials are all important. We need to use the new tools available to ensure that this becomes reality. These tools include better material flow tracing and accounting from mine to customer, and the use of robotics to support modular design and optimal material dimensions without jeopardising quality or functionality. In addition, we should advocate for industry leaders to evaluate corporate material procurement not just on physical characteristics such as aesthetics, resistance, tensile strength or pliability, but also to take into consideration resource depletion, toxicity, geographical location and renewability.

Taking this a step further, we would invite governments and companies to go beyond energy generation and efficiency and instead embrace sustainable material strategies. Collectively, we should take a good hard look at society as a whole and the final service that a product is expected to provide. Apps and brands that support the sharing economy, such as Uber in terms of mobility or Airbnb in terms of accommodation, can offer, with the right regulations and management, much more than energy efficiency — they can translate into fewer cars on the road or fewer new hotels being built.

We believe that early adopters of the strategies presented here will be industry leaders, able to attract more customers, improve their corporate images and sustain healthy bottom lines. To really make a difference and ensure that Industry 4.0 is a sustainable revolution in terms of energy and material resources, we all — companies, regulators, shareholders and consumers — need to understand the bigger picture.


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