The circularity gap and climate emissions

Even though most of China's industrial production is exported to the UK and other countries, we take no responsibility for the emissions in its power plants and factories, like this one in Chonqing. Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read via Flickr (CC BY-ND).

A factory in China. 

Flickr
We cannot treat climate breakdown without understanding the full picture: emissions and resource use are inextricably enmeshed. 

The circular economy provides the ingredients for an astonishingly rich transformation of how we produce, design and consume.

We have a complicated relationship with resources and materials. We continue to extract, to create, use andoverwhelminglywaste.

This not only creates a mammoth amount of human-made items in our natural world, but it leaks greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Billions of tonnes of them.

It’s not all bad news though: this article considers how we can break free of our toxic relationship and reevaluate the values that have exacerbated our warming climate. Here, the findings of the Circularity Gap Report 2021 show us what is possible and within reach.

Roadmap

The circular economy provides the ingredients for an astonishingly rich transformation of how we produce, design and consume. With circularity, we are envisioning an economy that is low-carbon and regenerative by design. 

Current national emissions-reducing pledgesNationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)—overwhelmingly focus on the energy transition and moving to non-fossil sources.

Although undoubtedly important, this narrow focus will not bring us to where we need to be: limiting global temperatures to well below 2-degrees, and ideally 1.5-degrees.

Even if all NDCs are implemented, the rise in temperatures is still forecast to hit 3.2-degrees this century.

The circular economy provides the ingredients for an astonishingly rich transformation of how we produce, design and consume.

Our Circularity Gap Report outlines 21 circular economy strategies that prioritise using materials less and for longer. If implemented, the circular ‘roadmap’ can keep temperatures to well below 2-degrees by 2032.

Industries

It can also close the globe's current ‘circularity gap’ of 91.4 percent — the mass of materials that are not cycled into the economy — by a further 8.4 percent.

And we are optimistic that change can happen. Our report gives world leaders a roadmap of circular strategies that can be integrated into current and upcoming climate pledges.

As governments design post covid stimulus packages, they are making decisions on how to spend capital to build back better and help set new goals for resilience and preparedness. These decisions will shape our future climate.

Climate mitigation efforts are centered around industries with high and verifiable historical GHG emissions: namely, energy tied to electricity, heat, construction, transportation and manufacturing.

Often Efforts result in making existing assets or incumbent industries more efficientrather than exploring truly sustainable or transformable alternatives. 

Consumption

The circular economy can sytemically transform our society. Its core tenets design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use for longer and regenerate natural systems. But how exactly does narrowing the circularity gap close the Emissions Gap? 

Of the 59.1 billion tonnes of emissions we release every year, 70 percent of these can be traced back to resource extraction, processing and use. Only 30 percent go toward energy needs (heating and cooling our homes, fuelling passenger transport from A to B).

This means that to really make a dent in global emissions, we need to look toward material processes and how they feed into satisfying our lifestyles; from the food we eat and the cars we drive to the clothes we wear.

Circular economy strategies that transform how we produce, design and consume within our economies are powerful because they require fewer resources for the same — if not better — output for society, and with fewer GHG emissions.

Circular strategies at the intersection of materials and emissions hotspots in the economy can increase value-retention and cut excessive consumption, thereby slashing GHGs.

Mitigation

The Circularity Gap Report finds that circular strategies have the power to axe global emissions by a massive 39 percent and cut virgin resource extraction by 28 percent. Housing, nutrition and mobility are the areas in which the most impactful circular strategies largely fall. 

In housing, more efficient use of buildings in ‘reducing floor space’ had the largest impact. Smaller spaces need fewer finite resources to build, and requireless heating and energy.

In transport, supply chain efficiencies such as the circular design of vehicles leads the way in terms of impact, as vehicles that use recycled content or are more durable have longer lifetimes and mitigate the need for virgin resources.

And in nutrition, a healthy diet that includes more satiating, unprocessed and nutrient-dense, as well as plant-based, foods reduces the carbon and material footprint of how we feed ourselves. This diet ultimately requires less carbon-, water-, feed- and space-intensive calories: livestock, for example.

By now, hopefully, you are convinced that the climate mitigation agenda must look towards our relationship with resources and materials to make major gains in mitigation—and that the circular strategies to address this are in reach.

Obsolescence

Although we need resources to sustain our lives—in the same way some emissions will always be dispersed—there is a problem with our reliance on and inefficiency with virgin resources.

Our 2020 Circularity Gap Report showed that our annual material use exceeds 100 billion tonnes of materials every year. It’s basically tripled over the last five decades and is forecast to amount to between 170 and 184 billion tonnes by 2050. This is a lot of ‘stuff’.

Many scholars have commented on the post-second World War value-shift where having more 'stuff' — be it a car, a house or the newest kitchen blender — began to be increasingly equitable with success, especially in the West. This consumption heavy culture has been taking its toll on our planet.

This value-system, however, appears to have seeped into many of the cultures around the world; and it’s proving hard to shake.

In business, the idea of planned obsolescence that artificially shortens products’ life spans, became more and more common from the 1930s onwards.

Civilisations

For years we have cursed our phones’ short or unreliable standing, but until recently, this wasn’t even considered a bad business practice. The linear economy and its take-make-waste habits are deeply ingrained in the global economy.

But history warns us that taking our natural resources for granted can spell disaster. Many civilisations have died out for this very reason. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond in Collapse, multiple failed civilisations—from the Anasazi of North America to Vikings of Greenland—all share a history of fundamental ‘use and abuse’ of the natural world. They also share the trait of ignoring the early warning signs. 

Early warning signals are not always obvious. We know this: global heating hasn't occurred in a structured way. Global temperatures have fluctuated and rises have been incremental.

We tend not to notice the signs until the issue is so prominent it feels as if it ‘suddenly’ arrived on our doorstep; an unwelcome guest. This may be especially true in the global West, which is largely responsible for the emissions that feed into climate breakdown, but don't yet bear the brunt of its impacts.

Diamond suggests that to succeed, civilisations need long-term planning—especially in making anticipatory decisions before crisis proportions are reached.

Journey

Now, in 2021, the political climate leading up to the COP26 foreshadows promising change.

The EU parliament has voted in favour of increasing the targets of Member States, aiming for a 60 percent reduction in emissions by 2030; the Biden Presidency rejoined the Paris Agreement; a host of nations have pledged for zero-carbon futures.

Countries around the world have an excellent opportunity to formulate more defined blueprints, supported by circular strategies, towards closing the emissions and circularity gaps. Perhaps we can start to be optimistic that our 21st-century civilisation is learning from the warnings of our past.

One thing that the Circularity Gap Report makes clear is that this journey will look different depending on where you live around the world. Governments must adapt their approach when striving for long-term, circular change and we have categorised countries within three broad groups: Build, Grow and Shift.

Build: Some countries have more biomass-orientated economies and emit fewer GHG emissions, but may also struggle to deliver solid healthcare or education.

Referred to as the ‘Build’ profile in our report, countries such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa and Pakistan are included.

Their priority areas to slash emissions and increase circularity would include reforming agricultural practices away from monocropping and deforestation; applying circular thinking across the much-needed construction; ensuring infrastructure for distributed and accessible mobility in growing cities and combining informal and formal waste management infrastructure.

Grow: In the ‘Grow’ profile are countries that are manufacturing and export hubs, which host a growing middle-class. Latin American and larger Asian countries, like China, are included in this profile.

Given their national contexts, priorities for the circular transition include prioritising sustainable agriculture, especially in products set for export; mainstreaming resource-efficient and low-carbon construction materials; satiating the growing appetite for energy with renewable sources where possible and establishing infrastructure for effective material cycling, including construction and demolition waste. 

Shift: Lastly, our report considers ‘Shift’ countries: these are high-income and high-emitters. For countries in this profile, like much of Europe and the US, priorities include taking responsibility for and reducing consumption by integrating circular strategies across construction, mobility, nutrition and consumer goods by transitioning from ownership to sharing models; making the most of goods—from buildings to vehicles—before, during and after their functional lifetimes and optimising how waste is valorised in the already mature waste management systems. 

Solution

As calls for action intensify, the solutions are here. Now, this is the year of truth. With 2020 struck by covid-19, lockdowns around the globe not only contributed to a sharp decline in emissions, but also accelerated decommissioning of fossil assets. Despite this progress being unintended and arguably temporary, it can teach us valuable lessons to translate into structural change—and now, the world seems to be listening. 

Our report gives world leaders a roadmap of circular strategies that can be integrated into current and upcoming climate pledges. It also informs governments on how to spend capital to build back better. We must not fall back on business-as-usual which could leave us vulnerable, divided and susceptible to the mistakes of history. Destructive and instructive as the pandemic proved, it is ultimately climate breakdown that will be the biggest global health-threat of the century.

In a time of building back better, the circular economy has never been more relevant. Circular strategies can, and must, form a massive part of the solution to this global crisis. 

This Author

Laxmi Haigh completed her MSc in 2017 and has worked as a writer, editor and journalist. She now works at Circle Economy and was one of the lead authors of the Circularity Gap Report 2021, launched on January 26th. Read the 2021 Circularity Gap Report here.

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