August 18, 2021

Preparing for COP26: How circular are current national climate pledges and how can they be improved?

Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Lead of Editorial
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Matthew Fraser
CGRi Lead

Current national climate pledges — Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — are overwhelmingly focused on the clean energy transition. While these can tackle emissions coming from petrol or diesel cars or electricity generation, 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from how we produce everyday goods — and the resources that fuel these processes. To slash global GHG emissions, climate mitigation measures must tackle the way that resources move through our economy, from extraction to use, as well as climbing rates of extraction and consumption around the world. This article, using the Build, Grow, Shift country profiles from the Circularity Gap Report series, reflects on countries’ current NDCs and how they can update them ahead of COP26.

‘Right now, the NDCs are top of mind for most national governments as COP26 approaches. While the link between the circular economy, consumption levels and climate mitigation is becoming clearer, it needs to be emphasised — especially for Shift countries. We need to address the footprint of our material consumption and fully integrate the circular economy as part of our strategies to mitigate climate change. A starting point is updating NDCs before the upcoming COP26: the current NDCs are inadequate and we must act with urgency’, says Matthew Fraser, Lead of the Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative.


In our 2020 analysis, we took 176 countries and scored them on their social performance and ecological footprint to assess how far they were from the end goal: a socially just and ecologically safe space. Countries’ fall into three broad profiles: Build, Grow and Shift.

Different countries, different responsibilities — and actions to prioritise

The most recent IPCC report has been dubbed ‘a code red’ for humanity — but it does say that catastrophe can be avoided if the world acts fast with deep cuts in GHG emissions. But current national climate pledges are not enough. If we continue as we are, we will remain on course for rises in emissions and average temperatures up to 2.4-degrees — surpassing the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.

Rising temperatures are already having devastating impacts — as we can see from our summer filled with deadly floods and scorching wildfires. And in a cruel irony, lower-income nations, which contribute the fewest emissions, are also most vulnerable to the impacts of climate breakdown. Nearly half (48%) of cumulative CO2 emissions over the last quarter-century can be attributed to just the richest 10% of the globe, whilst the poorest 50% were responsible for only 7%. And in the run up to COP26, 100 of the world’s lower-income nations released a position paper calling for compensation for the impacts they’ll be subject to from higher-income nations, among other demands.

To achieve deep emission cuts, the most impactful actions will — and must — look different in different localities. Despite clear divergences between countries, we can still discern which circular economy interventions will be most suitable in certain contexts based on clear common needs and structural parallels. In our Circularity Gap Report 2020, we categorised countries along two dimensions, social progress (indicated by a Human Development Index score) and Ecological Footprint, and found that countries fall into three broad profiles: Build, Grow and Shift. See more in the visual above.

Countries such as Bangladesh are under various climate change threats: sea-level rise, erosion, crop failures and more. Photo by fardouse lomat jahan rumpa on Unsplash

Shift countries’ NDCs need to be more ambitious

Shift countries consume a vast volume of resources and produce large amounts of waste and emissions, falling far outside of healthy planetary boundaries. Many of the social and environmental externalities that result from Shift countries’ actions occur elsewhere — indicating that nations in this profile must take greater responsibility for their consumption and emissions. Most Shift countries are among the highest global emitters and, arguably, the burden of climate mitigation should fall on their shoulders. Despite this, Shift NDCs are quite vague, and many countries in the profile are not on track to meet their rather loosely defined goals.

Currently, most Shift NDCs have built-in high levels of flexibility, and often mention target areas for reduction without detailing specific mitigation measures. In this way, vague goals set by governments lack the necessary clarity and fail to spark ambition in key actors to drive the change. This has resulted in market-based approaches like carbon pricing — which are just too narrow to meet our climate goals. As long as carbon remains underpriced and ambitious reduction targets are only given for the distant future, Shift NDCs cannot reflect the mitigation ambition required. Circular strategies are few and far between in this profile’s action plans, except for Japan and Chile — which do list detailed strategies under a broad range of mitigation areas and incorporate principles of circularity throughout.

As Shift countries further develop their national climate pledges, they will benefit from strong circular policies embedded across sectors. First and foremost, they must address the elephant in the room and reduce the consumption characterised by wealthy lifestyles. They must take responsibility and reduce this consumption by integrating circular strategies across the board: transitioning from ownership to sharing models; making the most of their 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. On the whole, the transformation of energy supply, circular housing, mobility and sustainable food systems need more attention and speed — with these transformations requiring significant investment into infrastructure, policy and behavioural change, beyond the functional capacities of the private sector. To get there, they must mobilise all the technologies and funds that they have at their disposal. Read more here on pages 50–57 of the Circularity Gap Report 2021.

The charged lead-up to COP26 has spurred some nations in this profile to set more ambitious targets in recent months. In April, the EU pledged to cut emissions by 55%, compared to 1990 levels, and the UK has set a 2035 target for a further emissions cut, taking it to 78% by 2035, well on the road to net-zero. Meanwhile, as the Biden Presidency rejoined the Paris Agreement, it announced its goal to reduce emissions by 50–52% by 2030. Norway, which is 2.4% circular, also submitted a stronger NDC target to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2030, as did Canada to boost its emissions reduction target from 30% to ‘at least’ 40–45% below 2005 levels by 2030. However, both are still not enough to reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree goal — unless Canada exceeds its ‘at least’ number.

Norway, which is only 2.4% circular, also submitted a stronger NDC target to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2030. Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Scattered commitment across Grow countries’ NDCs

Grow countries have experienced rising levels of industrialisation, as well as higher living standards in recent years. This profile’s resource use is characterised by fast economic growth — and material consumption increasing in tandem. Sustainable growth must, therefore, focus on using natural capital more efficiently, as well as further developing human capital. The NDCs of Grow countries are generally strong, characterised by a solid level of detail in their emissions mitigation plans. Key strategies for Grow countries in ramping up their NDCs will include incorporating circular design in construction, with a focus on public procurement, and safeguarding their biomass.

As the largest economy — and the biggest emitter — in the profile, China comes to the fore as the circular economy leader, exhibiting a range of interventions from building up recycling infrastructure and eco-industrial parks, to implementing low-carbon agriculture techniques and reusing organic waste. Its most recent five-year plan, unveiled in March, failed, however, to include a tougher emissions-cutting target and it still hasn’t submitted a revised NDC — disappointing many.

While other Grow countries vary in their levels of detail and target mitigation areas, most NDCs would benefit from an increased focus on circularity in the construction sector — especially as urbanisation in these regions will continue to spur the expansion of the built environment. This could include upping timber use in buildings, or prioritising modularity in design, allowing for future disassembly rather than demolition. The importance of a functioning, future-focused waste management sector — that both collects and segregates waste at scale and produces high-quality secondary materials — is also generally overlooked.

While the urgent need to halt deforestation and turn to more regenerative practices in agriculture is generally afforded attention in Grow NDCs, countries moving forward must align legislation with strong political action that enforces laws and punishes illegal logging and burning. In the future, Grow countries can create tangible routes for action by placing an even stronger emphasis on circular strategies, coupled with holistic plans for implementation that benefit the planet and people. Read more here on pages 50–57 of the Circularity Gap Report 2021.

Unfortunately, high-emitting countries in this profile, such as Brazil, have delivered ‘disappointing NDCs’ so far, although there is still time for revision ahead of COP26. On the other hand, many countries have upheld this profile’s generally strong level of NDCs. These include Colombia and Costa Rica — the NDCs of which are among the very few in line with at least a 2-degree target, and are fully unconditional and present a strong focus on Nature-based Solutions, and social and climate justice.

Grow countries are rapidly industrialising and expanding. However, one of the biggest emitters in the profile—Brazil—have not yet submitted NDC revisions ahead of COP26. Photo by Matheus Torrezan on Unsplash

Despite low-emitter status, Build countries NDCs prove ambitious

Build countries are resource-rich and place a high focus on the extraction and sale of raw materials, but fall short in HDI indicators like education and healthcare. The good news: they have yet to build up much of their infrastructure, presenting a key opportunity to embed circularity in their practices and NDC pledges surrounding biomass, construction, mobility and waste management.

Despite the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s recognition of the minimal role Build countries have in climate breakdown, these countries’ NDCs already showcase strong ambitions and detailed action plans for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Their contributions, at times, detail the importance of shifting attitudes and habits as well as honing in on technology and finance.

Moving forward, Build countries can place a greater emphasis on developing circular construction and mobility systems, facilitated by cutting-edge urban planning and powered by renewables. Further challenges may arise in the implementation of the transition pathways already well-aligned with country NDCs; as corruption and political instability prevail, effective policy-making is vulnerable to manipulation from special interest groups. Well-intentioned legislation must be backed by strong political will and enforcement, and global markets must adapt to create room for sustainably produced goods and services from these regions. Read more on pages 50–57 of the Circularity Gap Report 2021.

Although it varies by country, circular strategies pop up within Build NDCs, especially in the realms of agriculture, forestry, energy efficiency and renewables expansion. India, for example, pledges to ‘propagate a healthy and sustainable way of living based on traditions and values of conservation and moderation’ and notes that we ‘must promote…sustainable lifestyles across the globe’. And even against the backdrop of the covid-19 pandemic, we have seen impressive NDC revisions. Ethiopia’s submitted NDC update prioritises agriculture and forestry as they have the greatest emissions mitigation potential, and even though Ethiopia’s contribution to global GHG emissions is tiny, the country has increased its overall mitigation ambition with a commitment to reduce economy-wide emissions by at least 68.8% by 2030 against the business-as-usual projection. Ethiopia is also pursuing practical action through its Green Legacy initiative to plant 20 billion seedlings in four years.

Build countries' NDCs already showcase strong ambitions—such as Ethiopia, which has also delivered substantial revisions in its NDC. Photo by Yonatan Tesfaye on Unsplash

All eyes on COP26

The delay of the ‘pivotal’ UN climate conference, COP26, to November 2021, provides country leaders with an extended opportunity to update their climate pledges. However, the path each country takes must be tailored to its local context, as well as historical responsibility for emissions.

The alarm has been well and truly rung by the latest IPCC report — without action, we could lose entire counties to climate breakdown. Circle Economy hopes that the urgency of the situation is taken into consideration, and changes to NDCs are made in a way that can have the biggest climate impact. The circular economy is a systemic approach that looks beyond the energy system, and may be the only approach that will allow us to achieve the deep cuts that are desperately needed, as well as tackle the breach of other planetary boundaries like biogeochemical flows, biospheric integrity, land use change and novel entities like plastic pollution. This is especially true for countries in the Shift profile, which have the highest consumption rates and historical GHG emissions.

Learn more

Our global Circularity Gap Reports have investigated the role the circular economy plays in preventing climate breakdown, as well as other key topics. If you want to know how circular your country is, and how circular economy strategies could slash your national GHG emissions, you can request a Country Scan.

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