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Renewable materials are critical in achieving climate goals

InnoRenew CoE recently interviewed Dr. Lisanne Havinga ahead of her keynote address for the InnoRenew CoE International Conference 2021 to get her perspective on circularity. The conversation, presented below, has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


You are a scholar of circularity, sustainable renovation and urban energy transition. What key roles do renewable materials play in each of these areas?

I believe we have to approach the key challenges of our time, global warming and biodiversity loss, by evaluating scenarios for sustainable renovation and energy transition in a way that takes into account all environmental impacts. This requires a comprehensive understanding of energy, materials and emission flows and associated environmental impacts. In this holistic view, renewable materials are increasingly important as the operational impacts of buildings are being reduced.

Today, I’m convinced that renewable materials are absolutely critical in achieving our climate goals. I’ve actually seen studies indicating that merely the material impact of renovating the entire building stock would take up a substantial part of the remaining carbon budget. As such, it is absolutely imperative that the innovation and adoption of renewable materials continues and accelerates.


Given your perspective on renewable materials, how do you see them accelerating the shift to renewable energy systems?

It depends a bit on the scope of what you consider to be a renewable material. In principle, materials such as green hydrogen can also be considered a renewable material. In the Netherlands, there is a novel technology that regenerates iron powder after it has been burned, creating a completely circular and closed process, and as such, you could even argue that this iron powder is renewable. Both materials are examples of energy carriers that can play a critical role in the future renewable energy system, which will be drastically different than the current energy system. The future energy system will be multi-energy, highly dynamic and both more internationalized and more localized.

The high variability and unpredictability of these renewable sources will lead to a need to store electricity and heat for later use, but the scalability and efficiency of the conversion and storage systems, and the way transport and distribution of energy will be done, will ultimately dictate which solutions will become mainstream and which will only be deployed in niche applications. There will be a strong interconnection between production, transport, storage, distribution and ultimate use of the energy carriers. As such, renewable materials will both be used as sustainable fuels and as a means to store energy.


Can you talk about why the three Rs — renovate, renew, regenerate — are important to successfully meet environmental benchmarks?

These are important, but also don’t forget about the nine additional Rs that are frequently used in relation to circularity: Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Re-use, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Recycle, Recover.

I think the first three, Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, deserve much more attention. I remember vividly a keynote speaker who said to all the architects and engineers in the room: “If you want to help the environment, please stop building new buildings.”

The the following five Rs, Re-use, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, all are related to Renovate and Renew. These are critical for buildings and products. The Renovation Wave is one of the major priorities of the EU Green Deal, as it should be, since buildings and the construction sector are responsible for 40% of final energy consumption, more than a third of carbon dioxide emissions, a third of water consumption and more than half of all extracted materials in the EU.

I haven’t touched upon the term Regenerate yet. This is an interesting term when seen in relation to current sustainability practices that mostly focus on reducing negative impacts. Restorative Sustainability allows ecosystems to be restored. Regenerative Sustainability not only allows ecosystems to restore, but to thrive. Obviously, we have to strive for Regenerative Sustainability. We may not be able to achieve those targets in all cases, which makes it even more important if we want to stand a chance of meeting climate goals.


The New European Bauhaus initiative is shining a light on interdisciplinarity to address degradation and resource depletion. Will this kind of co-creation help to stem the climate crisis?

Looking back, notions such as People, Planet, Profit have perhaps strived to do similar things. But I think the problem is that, for a long time, concepts or frameworks such as this have been abused to limit the ambitions and targets that the planet requires us to set.

Obviously, we still have to see how the New European Bauhaus initiative will develop, but I am very hopeful that this approach is quite antithetical to the previous notion. Instead of Planet being one aspect that we have to balance with People and Profit, Planet is the starting point. Enhancing our relationship to nature and creating places where you can truly experience a positive impact on the environment and those living there, I believe, is a way to inspire and motivate people. This perspective of the social aspects of sustainability is essential to the accelerated reduction of emissions and the adoption of renewable materials and technologies.


Where do you see future technology being created and who will be the leaders to watch?

I am truly excited about the collaborative and open innovation I see happening. I’m exited about what we in the Netherlands refer to as “breeding grounds”, which are small and local collaborative enterprises that experiment and innovate to create prototypes. I also see universities opening their labs and facilities to collaborate with industry partners and take the lead in setting up innovation ecosystems. With universities involved, this creates a more open atmosphere and motivates competitors to articulate innovation challenges in a collaborative manner.

I think it is important to understand that the current renovation market is still so much smaller in size than the market we have to realize in order to meet climate targets – this market is basically non-existent. In the Netherlands, we often indicate this by saying we have to go from 1000 dwellings a year to 1000 dwellings a day. Many new roles and market players will emerge that do not exist today.

When it comes to renewable energy technologies, I believe in decentralized solutions that are small in size but can be adopted in large numbers. In this context, I’m excited to see the field of energy storage and conversion evolve as these technologies will become critical as we transition towards a renewable energy system.