February 8, 2022

How Scotland is using the circular economy to pave its way to net-zero

Six things countries serious about the circular economy can learn from Scotland's journey
Esther Goodwin Brown
Esther Goodwin Brown
Circular Jobs Initiative Lead
Esther Goodwin Brown
Matthew Fraser
Head of Research and Development

Off the back of COP26 in Glasgow, national decision-makers have returned home from Scotland with big promises to follow through in the coming months before they meet again in Egypt later this year. After two intensive weeks of discussions, it's now time to walk the talk. With no time to waste to be within a chance of fulfilling their pledges, countries of all sizes need to get practical about how they will deliver on their targets. 


From being one of the first nations with a circular economy strategy, to fuelling a business-led movement, and appointing the world's first Minister of the Circular Economy, Scotland is cementing itself as a frontrunner on circularity. And it's proving that it isn't afraid to take action, from concrete circular investments to the way it trains its people. As a country that was a hub of engineering, shipbuilding and locomotives for the industrial age, Scotland is now turning its hand at leading the way for itself and other countries to enter the 'net-zero age'.


But what can countries that are serious about the circular economy learn from the journey that a front-runner like Scotland is on? In this article we trace the steps Scotland has taken so far on its journey towards circularity and six tips for countries who want to get practical about the circular economy.


Glenfinnan Viaduct. Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

1. Give circular economy a seat at the table 

The Scottish Government has legislated a 75% reduction in 1990 levels of emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2045. And the circular economy is seen as a key way of doing this: ‘the circular economy represents an enormous economic and industrial opportunity for Scotland...it tackles emissions through influencing product design, manufacturing and waste and resource management’. This commitment to the circular economy builds on their track record of being one of the first governments to publish a circular economy strategy, Making Things Last, in 2016. 


A lack of ownership is often a barrier for countries who want to make progress on the circular economy. This is because the circular economy bridges the responsibilities held by Departments of Environment, Economic Development, Education, Labour, Infrastructure and many more. To help overcome this barrier, Scotland appointed the world's first Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity, Lorna Slater, in August 2021. The fact that Slater's responsibilities bridge natural resources, education, industrial strategy and the circular economy signifies not only that Scotland is putting the circular economy front and centre to its long-term strategy, but also that they are approaching it from a 360-perspective, where people and nature are the priority.

2. Re-imagine major industries

With coastlines bridging the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, Scotland is well known for two of its major exports: Atlantic Salmon, and oil and gas. But Scotland is not shying away from transforming its major industries so that they can be fit for its people and the future. Its western isles are now home to the largest marine protected area in Europe and major investments in technology are funnelling toward transforming its historically and economically important oil and gas industry towards renewables


Scotland's renewable electricity output has more than tripled between 2007 and 2020 and 97% of Scotland's energy consumption is now powered by renewables. The sea off the coast of Aberdeen is now home to the world's biggest floating wind farm, contributing to wind power being the largest source of renewable generation in Scotland since 2010. Yet 90% of the UK's oil production still occurs in areas of the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. By 2030, at least 60% of oil and gas platforms in the North Sea will be decommissioned, representing close to a million tonnes of materials. This represents a huge opportunity for reuse and repurposing of materials, not to mention to harness skills.


In 2020, Zero Waste Scotland worked with Circle Economy to look into the employment opportunities associated with its major industries. Huge employment potential was found, including associated with harnessing the materials and skilled workforce that are becoming available as a result of the decommissioning process. Existing expertise from oil and gas can be channelled towards remanufacturing and repurposing for industries including renewables, agriculture and construction. ‘If they know how to build it, it’s easier to dismantle it.’ said a representative from Cesscon Decom who was interviewed for the report about recruiting people from the oil and gas sector to streamline the reuse and recycling of materials in decommissioning projects. 


What is Scotland doing to harness this potential and move away from fossil fuels? £33 million is being invested in transitioning the North Sea oil and gas sector towards cleaner hydrogen energy. This was unveiled by the Scottish government in June 2020 as part of an energy transition fund of £62 million. Investments like these are making way for innovative solutions, like the biggest wave power turbine to date that is being tested in the Pentland Firth. As well as reducing its contribution to climate change, Scotland intends for its investments in innovation to increase its competitiveness and create jobs. The energy transition fund alone has been estimated to deliver £403 billion to the economy and create 21,000 jobs by 2050.


In 2020, Zero Waste Scotland worked with Circle Economy to look into the employment opportunities associated with its major industries



3. Put people at the centre 

Transforming Scotland's economy comes with an understanding that it will need its people and their skills to make it possible. ‘I want to see the skills, infrastructure and expertise that has been built up over decades in the north-east of Scotland and North Sea transferred to building up  the infrastructure we need for renewable energy,’ stated Nicola Sturgeon. According to labour market stats from November to January 2021, Scotland has the highest employment rates in Europe at 73.4% and knows its workforce is a key lever for developing the circular economy. Education and skills are seen as vital for inclusive growth and productivity in Scotland. Scotland's Future Skills Action Plan and Strategic Plan cement this, by calling for a flexible, agile and responsive skills system that can meet the challenges presented by demographic, environmental and technological change. 


Scotland makes significant investments in research and development. This includes seven innovation centres set for its key economic sectors, which have become a breeding ground for collaboration and knowledge-sharing between universities and businesses. In 2020, Zero Waste Scotland worked with Circle Economy to conduct the first baseline of circular economy employment in the country. Using this analysis, Circle Economy worked with stakeholders in Scotland to identify where they could pioneer exciting new roles and skills across key hotspots. The bioeconomy, capital projects and construction were focussed on, with skills pathways developed for how to get the workforce from where it is now to where it needs to be for the circular economy and Scotland's workforce to flourish. 


Education has been placed firmly at the heart of its recovery from covid-19. A key governmental response noted that the ‘central importance of the role of education in the reconstruction of the economy is unarguable’. The Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan released later cited the need for new circular jobs like designers, urban miners and multi-skilled on-site operatives in construction. Scotland's Just Transition commission is working to ensure the benefits of adopting a climate-resilient economy are spread across its population. This joined-up approach to industrial strategy, education and social and economic development—now being pioneered by Lorna Slater—is part of Scotland's actions to make sure no one's skills, just like other valuable raw materials, go to waste. 


4. Drive change through cities and businesses

Scotland recognises that circular economy interventions can help cities and businesses to work together to build back better and tackle climate change A 2020 report on building a resilient economy noted: ‘As Scottish businesses rethink their business models following the crisis, there is a real opportunity to embed the principles of a circular economy to promote new ways of reducing our use of scarce natural resources’. Putting words into action, Scotland's Circular Economy Investment Fund made £18 million in grant funding available to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) wanting to adopt circular business models. 


Meanwhile, Glasgow strives to be a hub for circularity and is bringing its local businesses and industries along on the journey. Back in 2005, Glasgow became the first local authority in the UK to adopt a council-wide minimum requirement for recycled content from building projects. Then in 2016, Glasgow set off on a journey to become one of the world's first circular cities by commissioning a Circle Scan. Over 12 months, Glasgow’s Chamber of Commerce, Circle Economy, Zero Waste Scotland and Glasgow City Council worked with SMEs to identify where and how the city could open up new markets using circular economy strategies. After honing in on the food and beverage sector, an action plan was developed to make these ideas a reality. 


'The Circle Scan has brought into focus how the Chamber can support local businesses, and champion the circular economy in Glasgow to ensure it becomes an important part of the overall commerce in the city.’ - Alison McRae, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce


The full report highlights five key opportunities for businesses to combine circularity with net-zero targets: food and drink, textiles, manufacturing, events and conferences and the built environment. Since then, Circular Glasgow has continued to pioneer a business-led movement in the city and the Glasgow City Council published a Circular Economy Route Map in 2019, cementing the city’s vision for a circular future with its recently showcased by the OECD.

The city of Glasgow. Photo by Artur Kraft on Unsplash


5. Remember, size isn't everything 

Speaking at the TED Countdown Summit in October 2021, Nicola Sturgeon said, ‘when it comes to tackling climate change, size really does not matter...we must act big in what we do and we must be big when it comes to the impact we make’.


Scotland's devolved powers for areas such as education help it to shape an enabling environment for a circular economy. It also published an indicative national defined contribution to the Paris Agreement—demonstrating how Scotland, as a nation within the UK, intends to contribute to the massive task of limiting global temperatures. 


As well as taking big steps itself, Scotland works closely with other ambitious, small nations. By joining 200 states, regions and devolved countries including the Ivory Coast, Shirak, New South Wales and Papua, as co-chair of the Under2 Coalition, Scotland wants to galvanise global action and encourage larger nations and to demonstrate what leadership on tackling climate change looks like. Together this group of 260 governments represented 1.75 billion people and 50% of the global economy, showing that small can not only be agile but also influential. 

6. Stake your claim and chart a clear pathway forwards

Scotland has big ambitions for net-zero and diversifying its workforce with the help of the circular economy. This is backed up and echoed across strategic plans and policy areas that demonstrate Scotland's joined-up vision for the future, now being pioneered by its Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity.


Scotland knows it needs to rethink the way they use and produce: around four-fifths of Scotland’s carbon footprint is caused by the production, consumption and subsequent waste of materials. To get a handle on things, it wants to understand how and where materials are used and lost in its economy; and where cycling those materials back more efficiently could create benefits for its people and economy. This is why Circle Economy is pleased to be working with Zero Waste Scotland and stakeholders from across sectors and cities on the first Circularity Gap Report for Scotland. Scotland will join pioneering nations like Norway, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Austria and the region of Quebec who have also worked with Circle Economy to dive deep into the material they use and pinpoint opportunities to close their Circularity Gap. As part of this, we're excited to be conducting a follow up employment assessment to track what kinds of circular economy activities have been generating jobs in Scotland in recent years. 


This project will also take an exciting new step that other Circularity Gap Reports before have not. Modelling the emissions and economic benefits of implementing different strategies, we are looking forward to working with local stakeholders to shape and finetune practical steps for accelerating the transition to a circular economy in Scotland. 


‘We know that one of the keys to success in getting people not just interested in the circular economy, but also engaged in taking action, is in setting out practical steps that businesses and municipalities can take. The proposed Circularity Gap Report will take this up a level by identifying significant circular strategies across key areas of our economy. This will involve multiple sectors working together to achieve recognisable, economic, and social opportunities, as well as the related emissions reductions,’ comments Iain Gulland, executive director and CEO of Zero Waste Scotland.



Find out more

To find out more about this project or other similar projects being run by the Circular Jobs Initiative (CJI) and Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative teams at Circle Economy, reach out to us via our CJI page or CGRI page. Circle Economy has also recently launched an easy-to-use digital platform to bring cities and nations further along on their circular journeys using data from around the world, learn more about Ganbatte here.


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