July 8, 2021

With the circular economy, we can avoid climate catastrophe

Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Editoral and Writing Lead
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh

Commissioned and published by Convergences in their Social Entrepreneurship Barometer Ebook (in French). Since 2011, Convergences has published the Social Entrepreneurship Barometer which presents the key issues and trends in the social entrepreneurship sector in France and internationally and promotes good practices in the sector.

In 2015, nearly all nations signed the Paris Agreement, vowing to limit temperature rise to well below 2-degrees, and ideally 1.5-degrees. But by 2025, there is a 40% chance of at least one year being 1.5-degrees hotter than the pre-industrial levels; in other words, we’re at risk of failing the Paris Agreement’s goal. What has gone wrong?

To bring the goals to life, countries crafted national pledges for how they will slash national GHG emissions. Although brimming with potential, analysis shows that even if all national pledges are fulfilled, the world would still warm up by 3.2-degrees this century. This would drown the world in climate extremes; floods, droughts and wildfires, all of which displace populations and threaten food security.

Many climate pledges fail in scope and ambition. They overwhelmingly focus on the energy transition: ditching fossil fuels in favour of clean energy, such as solar or wind. This results in efforts centred on energy sources in industries with high GHG emissions: namely electricity, heat, construction, transportation and manufacturing. Is this enough to stem climate breakdown? The answer here is no. To truly mitigate climate breakdown, we need to explore truly sustainable and transformative alternatives with a wider, more holistic impact. These alternatives were presented in the Circularity Gap Report 2021.

70% of emissions dispersed globally stem from resource use — not energy

The crux of the issue? Rallying efforts around renewable energy solutions fails to address the chunk of emissions stemming from resource use, all the way from extraction to end-of-use.. Think of the coal extracted from the earth’s crust: it’s first processed to become petroleum, which feeds into the synthetic fibres that weave the fast-fashion clothes we wear and quickly dispose of, or the harvested timber that is felled in the forest and processed in a sawmill to become the furniture we sit on and then throw away.

The current process of transforming raw materials into goods is linear and inherently inefficient: we take, make and then inevitably, waste. This accounts for the majority of all emissions. In addressing these emissions, the circular economy is the perfect antidote: it allows us to satisfy global needs and wants, such as transport and nutrition, with fewer materials. Fewer materials mean less extraction and processing; and consequently, fewer emissions.

If the world moved away from a linear economy and toward a circular one, global GHG emissions would drop by 39% and virgin resource use by 28%, and we would reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Cement clinker production is highly resource intensive and releases greenhouse gas emissions. Circular strategies can help us avoid these materials-emissions hotspts. Photo by Anaya Katlego on Unsplash

But what exactly are circular strategies and why are they so powerful?

In determining the circular strategies that resulted in a reduction of global emissions of 39%, we applied circular thinking along four key pillars: (1) Using less resources, (2) Using resources longer, (3) Using clean resources and (4) Using resources again.

1. In using less, the overall level of resources and materials flowing into an economy, and the emissions they bring, will be lower.

How housing is provided to the world can be transformed by, for example, ultimately building fewer, but better, new houses, as well as multi-occupancy dwellings which can reduce the overall floor space used — thereby optimising resource efficiency. However, before creating new buildings, existing ones should be repurposed where possible. In terms of nutrition and feeding the world, a key strategy is cutting excess consumption: but this must be managed well so that interventions to reduce consumption are only applied in appropriate geographical regions. In a thriving circular economy, there should be no food insecurity as resources are equally distributed.

2. In using resources for longer, the entire lifetime of a resource — from first use to end-of-life — is extended, and emissions are spread out.

In providing transport solutions to the world, we can prioritise durable design for every mode of transport — and ensure that it can be repaired when needed, instead of disposed of. The same goes for housing solutions: homes should be built to last, as well as easily repaired or easily converted to service different needs, such as from a home to an office space.

3. In making resources clean, emissions-intensive fossil fuels will no longer be part of the economy.

Using nature-inspired solutions in new homes can greatly reduce environmental impact: renewable technologies and building materials such as solar or timber can regenerate flows and shrink the carbon footprint of a property. This is the flow where much climate-mitigation efforts on clean energy are currently focussed.

4. In using resources again, embodied emissions in materials can be removed.

Our food systems are hugely wasteful — but many circular strategies can make use of the resources we see go in the trash. Such an example here is using food and agricultural waste to feed livestock. Many of the ingredients that go into current livestock feed — like soy — drive deforestation, which is hugely polluting and devastating for local biodiversity. Meanwhile, the construction industry produces 16.75 billion tonnes of waste a year, and only 35% of this, globally, is currently reused. Far more construction and demolition waste can be cycled to create new buildings — especially if the buildings have been built with this end-of-life purpose in mind. With circular strategies, 9.5 billion tonnes of this waste could be diverted from landfill, our report finds.

All 21 circular strategies presented in the Circularity Gap Report 2021 are shown in our Interventions Vortex.

An opportunity we cannot fail to take

Due to the global impacts of covid-19, the key moment to update national climate pledges was postponed. But this does mean that we can now be guided by the lessons we have learnt over the last year as we approach COP26. We have now proved that we must look beyond single variables, such as renewables or energy efficiency, and harness the transformative power of the circular economy.

Stimulus packages designed to pull us out of post-pandemic economic slumps also mean that governments are now making decisions on how to spend capital that could combine the twin agendas of economic recovery and sustainability.

In light of the sentiment of vulnerability the world has been united in as the pandemic brought our lives to standstill, there has never been a time more ripe for transformation.

About the Circularity Gap Report 2021

Circle Economy’s flagship report, published annually beginning in 2018, details the state of our world’s circularity. This year’s iteration combines the twin agendas of the circular economy and climate change mitigation, finding that doubling our current circularity metric — 8.6% — will close the Emissions Gap and get us on a path to a well-below 2-degree world.

For a practical look into the findings of the Circularity Gap Report for businesses, cities and nations, download our Circular Economy Briefing toolkits.

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