Crying out for circular economy: NGO urges leaders to bin throwaway culture for climate security
19 Jan 2022 --- Circle Economy has warned world leaders are missing an opportunity to combat climate change by failing to implement circular economy strategies that reduce virgin material consumption.
The NGO’s latest Circularity Gap Report – published today – suggests the linear global economy is fuelling the climate crisis, with more than half a trillion tons of virgin materials consumed since the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The report argues circular economy solutions can have a huge impact on climate change since 70% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are related to the production and use of products.
However, national climate pledges focus overwhelmingly on cutting emissions by reducing fossil fuel use. They barely mention resource extraction and consumption rates, and only one-third mention the circular economy, says Circle Economy.
The report presents a roadmap for limiting global warming to 1.5°C, urging governments to support reuse culture as a strategy for slashing carbon emissions. PackagingInsights takes a closer look at the circular economy as a climate change solution with Circle Economy representatives.
The waste mountain
The report warns the global economy is consuming 70% more virgin materials than the world can safely replenish. Annual resource use was recorded at 89.8 billion tons in 2016 but passed 100 billion in 2019 and is estimated at 101.4 billion last year.
Meanwhile, more than 90% of what humans take from the Earth goes to waste, with just 8.6% of materials recycled.
“Ultimately, if we continue to increasingly extract resources from the earth and consume more, emissions will continue to rise – even if the world runs largely on renewable energy sources,” stresses Laxmi Haigh, lead of editorial at Circle Economy and a lead author of the report.
“Policy tends to look at the source of GHGs: the burning of fossil fuels. Cutting out fossil fuels is extremely important – as is the transition to clean energy – but fossil fuel use is not the only emitter of GHGs.”
Circle Economy suggests applying a series of strategies that would cut annual material use to 79 billion tons, nearly double the circularity of the economy to 17%, and keep the world on track for 1.5 degrees:
- Use less – for example, resource-efficient building construction using lightweight design and local materials could save 3.45 Gt of emissions and 4.05 Gt of materials.
- Use longer – for example, refurbishing and renovating buildings to prolong their life could save 2.15 Gt of emissions and 5.28 Gt of materials.
- Regenerate – for example, using seasonal and local food and other environmentally sustainable food production methods can save 2.07 Gt of emissions and 3.4 Gt of materials.
- Use again – for example, using recycled metal and plastics to make vehicles and recycling vehicles at the end of their life could save 1.5 Gt of emissions and 3.33 Gt of materials.
Cop out at COP26
World leaders committed to limit climate change to 1.5°C at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, UK, at the end of last year. However, new pledges still leave the world on course for 2.4°C, and to meet 1.5 °C, a further 19-23 billion tons of annual emissions must be cut by 2030, according to Climate Action Tracker.
However, circular economy discussions were “unfortunately quite absent in Glasgow,” recalls Haigh. “Now, one-third of national climate pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions) mention the circular economy. This is an improvement, but we hope to see more by the next COP in Egypt at the end of this year.”
More positively, Circle Economy was pleased by how often “nature-based solutions” were discussed at the conference, especially since such solutions offer a holistic approach often in line with the circular economy.
“Leaders from government, business and civil society must put circular solutions on the global agenda and ensure they feature strongly when countries update their national climate pledges ahead of COP27 in Egypt,” reiterates Martijn Lopes Cardozo, Circle Economy’s CEO.
The NGO has identified 21 solutions that could close the “circular gap” if adopted worldwide, cutting 22.8 billion tons (22.8 Gt) of emissions on top of current pledges. The solutions provide a roadmap to guide nations, cities and businesses to reduce emissions by cutting virgin material use.
Recycling’s real potential
The circular economy now features in many governmental and multilateral policies and goals, from the EU Circular Economy Action Plan to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, the focus often falls narrowly on recycling, and there is limited recognition of its role in reducing emissions, according to Circle Economy.
Edward Kosior, founder of pioneering polypropylene (PP) packaging recycling project Nextloopp, recently explained how recycled plastics can be a weapon against climate change, and how not all recycled plastics offer the same levels of carbon efficiency.
“We need to refer to the intrinsic CO2e footprint of the base plastics to ensure our choices have the smallest CO2 footprint,” he tells PackagingInsights. “Recycled HDPE and recycled PP have a 25% lower carbon footprint than recycled PET. So, while PET has been a true recycling success story, from a CO2 perspective, we should be looking to recycle more HDPE and PP than PET.”
Consumption cuts crucial
Nonetheless, an emphasis on material efficiency over reducing consumption is limiting climate change progress, stresses Circle Economy. The Netherlands, for example, is a global frontrunner in material efficiency, but its use of natural resources is barely declining.
Global use of materials has more than tripled in the 50 years since the Club of Rome predicted rapid economic growth and natural resource exploitation would lead to the “collapse of civilization” by 2040. In 1972, when it published its landmark report, Limits to Growth, the world extracted 28.6 Gt of materials. By 2000, it was 54.9 Gt, and in 2019, it reached 101.6 Gt.
With the global population set to pass 10 billion in the second half of the century, resource use and emissions will grow further without radical action. If “business as usual” continues, material use is predicted to reach 170-184 Gt a year by 2050. For example, it is estimated that the area covered by buildings will nearly double in the next 40 years, the equivalent of building a city the size of Paris every week.
“Circularity is not becoming a reality at anything like the speed or scale that these times demand, and over the past five years, the Circularity Gap Report has provided essential and authoritative analysis to make that painfully clear,” says Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics and senior teaching associate at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, UK.
“I hope that future editions, over the coming five years, will be able to reflect a profoundly different story, using innovative metrics and powerful case studies to document the industrial circular transformation that is so urgently needed.”
The Circularity Gap Report also warned “radical collaboration” in food and nutrition is needed to limit global warming.
By Joshua Poole
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