The UK intends to reach net zero emissions by 2050 to limit the effects of climate change, which will be achieved when the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions are equal to or less than the emission the UK removes from the atmosphere. But why is this important to manufacturing and in what ways can the sector help reach our net zero goals?
Between 1990 and 2018, the manufacturing industry decreased carbon dioxide emissions by 56.7 million metric tons (about as much as 31 million cars) yet since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic reducing emissions has become much more difficult. One of the main challenges businesses face to cut down on emissions is the cost and access to new and more efficient technology. The pandemic has resulted in greater uncertainties in terms of financial plans and the current supply chain. This has meant that investment into the manufacturing sector has fallen because manufacturers are unsure about the future of the industry or lack the cashflow needed to finance green projects. This situation worsened because of the pandemic, which caused many closures and job losses.
The manufacturing sector has nevertheless shown to be adaptable as during the pandemic we saw many factories being repurposed to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or ventilators and it showed the flexibility of the industry. Manufacturers could harness this ability and find new ways to produce the same goods with less emissions. Reducing greenhouse gas emission and increasing use of renewable energy will achieve net zero.
One way for manufacturers to achieve net zero emissions may be to install solar panels on the top of factories. Solar power is a renewable energy source and makes use of the natural environment without causing depletion or environmental degradation. Additionally, new modern technologies should also be considered, such as harnessing energy from rainwater when it falls on a surface. Wang Zuankai, a biomedical engineer from the City University of Hong Kong, found that a drop of rainwater falling from a height of 15cm can approximately generate 140V which is enough energy to power 100 small LED lights. This would allow manufacturers to harness even more energy as rain is a more common weather condition than sunshine in the UK. However, this type of technology is still developing but it would be a rewarding investment into reaching net zero. Moreover, wind energy already contributes significantly to the UK’s energy needs and could support manufacturers to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. However, these renewable resources may not produce enough energy for very large factories with a lot of large machinery, in particular those that utilise gas extensively (e.g., energy-intensive industries), so other alternatives may be required.
There are existing technologies that manufacturers should consider investing in and purchasing to reduce their emissions. For example, heat pumps could significantly reduce emissions. Around 50-90% of energy consumption in manufacturing plants go to heating and cooling so technology reducing the emissions produced here would hugely benefit the environment. Heat pumps can reduce emissions produced from heating and cooling by around 50%. Heat pumps absorb heat in one area and transfer it somewhere else which is useful as less energy is required to generate heat and therefore less emissions are produced.
Waste heat is often produced as a by-product in many industrial processes, but it can be transferred to another part of the production process. In the 2022 Spring Statement the Chancellor of Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has promised that homeowners will no longer have to pay VAT on energy efficient materials like heat pumps and although this is a step towards net zero for the UK, it would be more effective if this was extended to manufacturers also, as they are the biggest producers of wasted energy from heating and cooling. However, for heat pumps to work efficiently, the building must be well insulated, so it is crucial to encourage this first. A 100% business rate relief on all green building improvements would encourage manufacturers to take steps towards net zero starting with insulation and heat pumps. Perhaps in the future, waste heat produced in manufacturing plants can be transferred for household usage through heat networks, which would help the UK reach net zero emissions.
However, from a tax perspective the Chancellor did bring forward green technology exemptions on business rates to April 2022. This is a small alleviation to current growing cost pressures, but it presents the right time for manufacturers to consider investing in self-generating energy where possible.
The biggest challenge faced by UK manufacturing today is underinvestment towards our net zero targets. Low investment in new technology also means lower productivity growth, which has negative impacts on the economy as well as the environment. Given the current energy crisis, it is even more important now to be investing in order to create a more sustainable and resilient economy. Therefore, it is crucial for the sector to continue to increase its R&D expenditure into advanced technology and machinery. With the right incentives in place manufacturing can deliver net zero to the UK and certainly manufacturers are committed to this journey.