Resource Use

Countries need to become circular to avoid climate change, says report

Circle Economy logoA new report into the global circular economy shows that governments could avoid drastic climate change by encouraging reuse and the recycling of natural resources – but that we are a long way off from seeing the circular economy in practice around the world.

While the term ‘circular economy’ might not be common household utterance yet, the ideas behind it – keeping natural resources in use for as long as possible through re-use or recycling rather than continually extracting and consuming new ones – are certainly becoming more popular, especially with the problem of single-use plastic waste continuing to dominate environmental agendas.

It is at the national level that circular practices could have a significant impact, according to Dutch social enterprise Circle Economy, helping to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions across the globe. Emissions are closely linked to resource use; analysis by Circle Economy suggests that 62 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (excluding those from land use and forestry) are released during the ‘extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods to serve society’s needs’.

Read more: Resource efficiency fastest way to cut carbon emissions

The historic Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 aims to limit global temperature increases to ‘well below’ two degrees above pre-industrial levels. A report last year by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed that 1.5 degrees was the very maximum rise that the world could take before devastating effects would be induced – and said we have only 12 years to ensure this limit.

However, global resource use is increasing; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated in October 2018 that the world’s consumption of raw materials is set to double by 2060. And Circle Economy’s new report claims that only nine per cent of the world economy is circular – in other words, only nine per cent of the natural resources that enter the economy every year are being reused. 

The ‘Circularity Gap Report 2019’ was launched today (22 January) at the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The findings of the report show no improvement from the previous year’s results, with the upward trend in resource extraction and carbon emissions continuing.

Leaves in a circleCircular strategies for the future

Circle Economy is calling on governments to improve their circular approach, especially in the built environment (meaning the human-made space around us – the construction and maintenance of houses, offices, roads and infrastructure). This area has the largest resource footprint, especially in the developing world.

Three main strategies are proposed in the report for governments to implement a circular economy:

  1. Optimising the utility of products by maximising their use and extending their lifetime;
  2. Enhanced recycling, using waste as a resource; and
  3. Circular design, reducing material consumption and using lower-carbon alternatives.

Circle Economy’s CEO, Harald Friedl, explained: “A 1.5-degree world can only be a circular world. Recycling, greater resource efficiency and circular business models offer huge scope to reduce emissions. A systemic approach to applying these strategies would tip the balance in the battle against global warming.

“Governments’ climate change strategies have focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation but they have overlooked the vast potential of the circular economy. They should re-engineer supply chains all the way back to the wells, fields, mines and quarries where our resources originate so that we consume fewer raw materials. This will not only reduce emissions but also boost growth by making economies more efficient.”

Some governments have begun to take notice of the circular economy concept – the Netherlands is aiming to become 50 per cent circular by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050. The EU’s Circular Economy Package was signed off last year and aims to reduce the Union’s ‘dependence on the import of raw materials and facilitate the transition to more sustainable material management’.

However, there is a long way to go before concrete results will be seen from this legislation in Europe. Friedl commented: “Huge work remains to be done in established economies where the priority is to make better use of existing infrastructure. At the same time it’s crucial that we work with emerging economies to avoid mistakes made in the past.

“Now is the time to replace traditional building methods with state-of-the-art practices which will not lock in high emissions for decades to come. Countries will make maximum impact by designing not just homes, buildings and infrastructure but whole cities for maximum resource efficiency.”

The full report from Circle Economy can be read on the Circularity Gap website.

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