Circular economy and climate change: what’s the underlying thread?
Recently, we all have witnessed that the concepts of circular economy and climate change have started to make their way in the current talks in combination with each other, in the definition of what would be the preliminary conditions for a successful strategy to move out of the current crisis and avoid the potential threat of its consequences.
Those that at first seem to be two separate and stand-alone aspects of the bigger threat represented by the environmental pressure, are now strongly intertwined and interdependent. But what is the underlying connection between two broad concepts that at first glance, do not seem to hold any straightforward link with each other?
By now, the concept of circular economy is slowly paving its way among people, who are becoming increasingly familiar with the term. Saying that it triggers immediate and direct connections with what it entails, though, is still quite an ambitious statement. Behind this new economic system, lie broad and huge implications that are still in the process of being fully mastered and experienced, and whose outcomes are getting tangible just now.
What legitimates this visceral bond between climate targets and circular practices?
Climate change is the result of an excessive production of greenhouse gas emissions that human-driven activities are causing due to the “take-make-dispose” economic paradigm, which still heavily relies on the extensive use of fossil fuels and short-term exploitation of resources. It is clear that what brought to the establishment of the Paris Agreement, intended to achieve zero emissions by 2050 to keep the earth temperature at 1.5°, makes the climate issue an urgent priority.
According to the related 2019 report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the shift to the use of renewable energy and the focus on the energy efficiency can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from all the products we consume everyday: vehicles, clothes, food, electric devices, and so on. How do we deal with the emissions produced by the production and consumption of all those products?
The solution lies in two simple words: circular economy. Taking out virgin materials, introducing recycled ones and designing out waste in the design of new products are the three cornerstones forming the grounds on which the concept itself is based. According to the Report, the application of circular economy strategies in just five key areas (cement, aluminium, steel, plastics, and food) can eliminate almost half of the remaining emissions. Let alone including all possible existing fields.
Besides being an extremely necessary facilitator to complete the quest to meet climate targets, the application of circular economy principles carries with it a series of positive externalities that create the conditions for more livable cities, by improving the quality of resources and preserving biodiversity.
Circular economy needs to be included and prioritised in the countries’ agenda as the essential tool able to provide a systemic change that will finalise the ultimate ambition of reducing emissions and achieving climate neutrality. Of course, each country cannot be left alone. One for all, all for one. In these lines, governments need to provide effective policy frameworks to reach these goals in order to engage every living actor in the formation of an alliance driven by the only ambition of winning the battle. At all levels, international organisations, governments, NGOs and the private sectors should all collaborate to include and apply circular economy as part of a comprehensive management of the climate change challenge, aimed at implementing actions that should lead to zero waste production and energy efficiency resilience. Organizations like GACERE, a global alliance born with the intention of joining the efforts to checkmate climate change, put forward the urge to plan time-marked actions that will be required in the decade that follows, a decisive period for a crucial turn into the history of our humanity.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Completing the Picture: How the Circular
Economy Tackles Climate Change, 2019
Hastreiter N., Scheer A., Bienkowska B., Dietz S., What does the circular economy have to do with meeting climate goals?, LSE Business Review, 2021
Ishii N., The next decade is critical for the climate. Here’s how the circular economy can help, World Economic Forum, 2021