In a world with finite resources, we are using more than what our earth can provide. In fact, we are using 60% more than what our earth can regenerate every single year.
Not only this, but we are doing this in an incredibly harmful and wasteful way – generating such a large quantity of greenhouse gas emissions that our goal of limiting temperate rise to 1.5c might not actually be possible. Right now, across media and corporate sustainability strategies the focus is on limiting emissions and reaching carbon neutrality. But does it go far enough?
The link between climate change, GHG emissions, and the circular economy may not appear obvious, but I would like to argue that we can not meaningfully transition to Net Zero by 2050 without incorporating the concept of the circular economy.
First thing on the agenda, what does a “circular economy” actually mean? It has been defined by Oxford Dictionary as:
“an economic system based on the reuse and regeneration of materials or products, especially as a means of continuing production in a sustainable or environmentally friendly way.”
This contrasts with the system in which we operate currently, where the resources are mined, made into products, and then when the user is finished with it, it becomes waste. Circular economy keeps our finite resources in a loop, which ultimately reduces waste and promotes higher quality product innovation.
Another important concept in this discussion is Net Zero. Net Zero refers to a balance between the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere with what is removed out of the atmosphere. Additionally, Net Zero by 2050 refers to the collective global goal agreed upon for mitigating global warming.
The question now is, what is the link between Net Zero and GHG emissions, and a circular economy? Well, according to the Circularity Gap Report in 2021, by implementing circular economy solutions: we can reduce global emissions by 39% by 2039; reduce total material footprint by 28% by 2032; and ensure we steer well below a 2C temperature rise. These calculations are based on understanding the biggest contributors to GHG emissions.
Now, were we to look at the specifics, these findings might be more intuitive and the link between the concepts might become more apparent. Let’s use heavy industry as an example. 27% of the global CO2 emissions are from heavy industry. Within this class, steel, cement, chemicals and aluminium are responsible for up to 60% of these emissions. If we were to continue forward ‘business as usual’, especially with the rise in global population and an increase in requirement for these materials, we will stray further away from the collective goal of Net Zero and exacerbate the climate crisis beyond repair.
This is where the circular economy plays a crucial role, as it goes beyond the limitation of just recycling these materials after use as it can often be ineffective. Ultimately, it eliminates the concept of waste altogether, promoting at its core the values of prolonged use of resources, reuse and repurposing, and incorporating a system where there’s effective recycling back into the process. This allows for a systemic reduction of waste and GHG emissions, tackling the climate crisis in a holistic way instead of what is possible in the linear model we currently are partaking in. By definition if we continue to design and make products to be thrown away rather than reused or repurposed we are adding to the accumulative rising quantity of GHG emissions.
Without circular economy initiatives being incorporated into both government policies and into corporate sustainability strategies, we cannot realistically expect to meet our collective and global Net Zero goals. That’s why it’s time to go back to the boardroom and brainstorm a way to consider the bigger picture, rather than attempting to tackle the individual problems of the climate crisis.