Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Matthew Fraser
Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative
Circle Economy’s
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Beyond the energy transition

Why we need a circular economy to keep human activity within the safe limits of the planet

Beyond the energy transition
This article was originally published by Economist Impact

We live on a finite planet, but the opportunities for change available to us right now are infinite. A circular system is part of this.

If circular-economy solutions are integrated across key global systems, we can fulfil the global population's needs with just 70% of the materials we currently use. And since most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are tied to material extraction and use, this will also limit warming temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius. These are among the findings of the Circularity Gap Report 2023, which models how we could provide for the needs of the global population within our planet’s safe limits through 16 circular solutions.

These welcome findings are more urgently needed than ever, because our current linear “take-make-waste” processes have caused us to overshoot many of the “planetary boundaries”—limits beyond which environmental health across land, sea and air is put into jeopardy.

the four key circular flows that circular solutions are based on
This image shows the four key circular flows that circular solutions are based on, and the intended hierarchy: using less, using longer, making clean and using again. Learn more about this in the Circularity Gap Report 2023.

Earth’s vital signs beyond climate change

It is overconsumption of materials that is driving us past our planet’s safe limits. The global appetite for materials shows no sign of slowing down: annual material extraction has more than tripled since 1970 and almost doubled since 2000—and now sits at 100bn tonnes per year, according to the Circularity Gap Report in 2020. This expansion cannot solely be blamed on population growth. While the global population has doubled since 1970, per-person material use has only increased by a factor of 1.7 during that time. But in high-income countries, material use is far outpacing population growth, while the opposite is true for lower-income countries. 

Beyond the energy transition

Our increasing reliance on virgin materials creates a host of problems. Due to their high embedded emissions, a knock-on effect is excess GHG emissions in the atmosphere: approximately 70% of global GHGs come from material use and handling.

Beyond emissions, material extraction and use drive over 90% of total global biodiversity loss and water stress, for example. In fulfilling societal needs—as well as many wants—we are now breaching six of the nine planetary boundaries that are crucial to planetary health: climate change, biodiversity loss, land system change, chemical pollution, and cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus. Ocean acidification—also driven by spiralling carbon emissions—is dangerously close to its tipping point.

Key circular strategies can deliver huge impacts

We cannot focus on the energy transition alone to bring human activity within the safe limits of the planet. We need a far more systemic approach centred on smart, circular material use. The principles underlying this approach are simple but impactful: use less—a sharp decline in virgin-material extraction; use longer—use the materials that we do have better and more durably; make clean—swap out fossil fuels and toxic materials for renewable, regenerative ones; and use again—boost the use of secondary materials. 

So what does an alternative circular world look like in practice?

the impact the 16 circular solutions have on reversing the overshoot of five planetary boundaries
This visual shows the impact the 16 circular solutions have on reversing the overshoot of five planetary boundaries, showing the percentage reduction.

The food system

Feeding the global population through largely industrial processes has a huge environmental impact. Food systems are by far the largest driver of changes in land use: around 7% of land use globally is allocated to crops, which is equivalent to the size of East Asia, and livestock production accounts for 27% of global land use, equivalent to the size of the Americas. Growing food also consumes 70% of all accessible freshwater. This cannot continue indefinitely. Here’s how we can go circular:

  • Put healthier, satiating foods first
  • Go local, seasonal and organic
  • Mainstream regenerative agricultural practices
  • Eliminate avoidable food waste.

The built environment

Housing and providing services for the world’s rapidly urbanising population is material-intensive. While inefficient building processes are a drain on resources and are carbon-intensive, we can also influence buildings’ sustainability in their use phase, through energy efficiency, durability and recyclability, for example. Today, buildings are major carbon emitters, claiming nearly one-third of global energy consumption. Key circular solutions include:

  • Be as energy-efficient as possible
  • Make the most of what is already built
  • Prioritise circular materials and approaches
  • Reuse waste as much as possible.

Manufacturing and consumer goods

The impacts of this system—which includes items such as clothing, plastics and furniture—stem primarily from two factors: the scale of production (and consumption), and the production processes themselves. Sourcing materials for everyday products drives deforestation, biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, particularly in the tropics. It also leaks chemicals into the environment, harming human, animal and soil health. Key circular solutions:

  • Mainstream industrial symbiosis (where the waste from one industry is put to us in another one) and efficiency
  • Extend the lifetime of machinery, equipment and goods
  • Buy only what you really need
  • Eschew fast fashion in favour of sustainable textiles.  

The mobility system

The demand for transport is rising globally—but current modes are heavily material- and fossil-fuels-intensive. Emissions from the transport system could grow by 60% by 2050, and transport is the number-one user of oil worldwide. GHG emissions result not only in warming global temperatures, but also in ocean acidification, which has severe consequences for entire ecosystems and further destabilises our climate. The transport system also drives land-use change and biodiversity loss through the development of infrastructure—also releasing harmful pollutants into the ocean. Key circular solutions:

  • Embrace and enable car-free lifestyles
  • Invest in high-quality public transport
  • Rethink unnecessary air travel
  • Electrify remaining vehicles.

The solutions are in our hands

The long-term environmental impacts of business-as-usual activities across sectors are clear. We urgently need to adjust our systems to reverse the overshoot of the planet’s safe limits. A circular economy offers solutions to reduce, regenerate and redistribute the use of vital materials, to cut material use by one-third, while boosting well-being and creating jobs.

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