The 2015 Paris Agreement united 195 countries behind a commitment to limit the rise of the earth’s average temperature to no more than 1.5C. In order to achieve this, global emissions must be cut by 26bn tonnes annually by 2030, according to UNEP. Unfortunately, the climate policy packages proposed thus far can only deliver about half the emission reductions that are needed. However, a recent report published by Circle Economy and Ecofys, illustrates how implementing the circular economy globally can help to reduce the remaining emissions by half.
There is no doubt that climate change poses a significant risk to society, our planet and the ability for future generations to thrive. Increasingly, investors are moving funds and implementing mitigation strategies but in order to truly alleviate climate change, new paradigms must be explored. We must move beyond incremental improvements and reimagine the ways we generate and deliver goods and services. The focus on climate change and the reduction of emissions so far has rightfully been on renewables and efficiency improvements, yet the circular economy shifts our attention to retaining value and making efficient use of the resources we already have by re-entering them into a system that is continuous and long lasting. The shift away from fossil fuels to renewables has engaged investors, industry players and pioneering entrepreneurs. The next step requires a similar transition. One which addresses our material use and draws inspiration from companies like Spotify, Zipcar and Peerby.
Here are the top five ways the circular economy can play a part in fighting climate change.
1. Do more with less
Roughly 60bn tonnes of raw materials are extracted from the earth annually. That is the equivalent of 22kgs per person per day. Half of these materials are the fuels we burn and the food we eat and a significant portion of the other half is used to build our homes, offices and roads. The remainder is used for a variety of products from cars and clothing to cleaning agents and personal care products. Of all these raw materials used by the global economy only 7% are reused. The circular economy, as a principle, promotes the reusing of materials through repair, refurbishment and upgrading. If a car engine can be taken out, upgraded, and installed back into the car as good as or even better than new, the opportunities for saving on materials is significant.
2. Substitute carbon-intensive materials
The cement industry alone is responsible for approximately 5% of current emissions globally. In order to incentivise energy efficiency measures, typical climate policies focus on reducing emissions per tonne of cement produced. This mentality only lessens the amount of emissions instead of finding a safe alternative for the product and too often ignores other solutions such as substituting concrete or designing modular buildings.
An example of this forward thinking approach is Park 20|20, a business estate in Amsterdam that strives for closed material, energy, waste and water cycles. During the construction of the building, modular materials were used so that they can be reused indefinitely. Alternatively the use of low-carbon alternative building materials like Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) are being used to construct skyscrapers such as the proposed 35-storey Baobab tower in Paris designed by Vancouver architect Michael Green.
If cement and construction companies can take these innovative approaches into account, they can engage in the circular economy while future-proofing their business.
3. Create a domino effect
In developed countries, 55% to 65% of greenhouse gas emissions are related to the extraction, transport and processing of raw materials, according to the OECD (pdf). Increasing circularity means reducing our dependence on raw materials and results in a reduction in the amount of energy needed to extract, transport and process these materials. As energy needs in these stages decrease so too does the need for energy infrastructure, pipelines, coal terminals and refineries. Although we’re far from ending our reliance on fossil fuels, this would free up material embedded in our fossil energy infrastructure for other purposes and create a positive domino effect from one sector into another.
4. Efficient use of resources and energy
An often heard counterargument is that although improved efficiency reduces costs it also leads to increased demand. This rebound effect has been studied in detail in regards to energy efficiency and it has been found that only 5% to 30% of the efficiency gains are lost through greater use. This rebound effect is likely to be similar for resource efficiency.
5. Disrupt the digital stage
Established business models are beginning to be replaced and the circular economy is adding to the increased momentum of this new, disruptive age. Physical services are being replaced by online equivalents, effectively dematerialising services. For example, in the music industry, compact discs have essentially been replaced by unlimited access to music online, thanks to iTunes, Spotify, and even now obsolete websites such as Myspace. This reduction in material use due to service delivery is optimising resource use and maximising value.
This article was originally published on The Guardian.