Defining the Circular Economy For the last 250 years, economies in the developed world have been based on models of continuous growth. However, Earth’s ecosystems are buckling under this insatiable demand for natural resources. Habitats are fragmenting, pollution is having far-reaching negative effects on biodiversity, and expansive land-use conversion to meet growing consumer demand is depleting the planet’s available carbon sinks. If these traditional linear models of production continue, based as they are, on a ‘take-make-consume-throw away’ pattern, we will soon be extracting materials at a rate far beyond the planetary boundaries.
The circular economy is a model of production and consumption which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials to extend the life cycles of products for as long as possible. It represents a paradigm shift in thinking about economic systems; the whole value chain in a circular economic system is regenerative by nature. It disconnects natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic activity.
In application, waste and pollution are designed out of the economic model. Figure 1 illustrates a circular economic model. Here, value is maintained in the form of energy, labor, and materials by keeping products, components and materials circulating in the economy which reduces the dependence on raw materials and minimizes residual waste.
The Circular Economy:
- A Key to Unlocking Solutions for a Sustainable Future
The move to a circular mode of sustainable production and consumption will have a plethora of positive benefits for our shared environment, the climate, and society.
- Impacts on the Environment and Climate.
The decoupling of economic growth from increases in energy and resource use will have profound effects on soil fertility, biodiversity, and land, water, and air quality. A circular economy will reduce pressure on the environment and improve the security of supply of raw materials. This system-change will increase competitiveness, stimulate innovation, and boost economic growth.
The shift from a linear to a circular economy will have a marked impact on levels of pollution, which is one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity. Roughly 80% of environmental pollution and 90% of manufacturing costs in the EU are the results of decisions taken at the product design stage. Important pillars of circularity, such as waste prevention, eco-design and re-use, tackle these problems at source and offset biodiversity loss; curb levels of pollution; limit over-exploitation of species; and reduce production costs.
The paradigm shift to a regenerative economic system is also a powerful force for climate mitigation. Studies show that a more circular economy can make deep cuts to emissions, especially in heavy industry and hard-to-decarbonise sectors of the economy. At present, the production of material used for every-day life accounts for 45% of the EU’s CO2 emissions. By simply making better use of the materials that already exist in the economy, heavy industry in the EU could get halfway towards net-zero emissions.
- Impacts on Human Health and Economic Growth
There is also a significant global health footprint in the transition to a circular economy. In a 2018 study, the World Health Organization outlined the direct and indirect health benefits associated with circular practices. The report highlights that the reduction of landfill and incineration waste; the removal of harmful chemical substances; and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants will improve air quality and produce significant public health benefits.
Further, it is outlined that the circular economy will contribute to the attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Research from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that circular economy practices can increase the resilience of the medical sector in times of crises. The study highlights that circular strategies of closing resource loops decrease import dependency for medical equipment which improves security of supply of essential goods.
Furthermore, the NIH study recognizes that ‘sustaining life’ is an important pillar in the circular economy framework. This factor, which integrates biodiversity in the value chain, and concomitantly improves air quality, is pivotal for good public health and can decrease the need for medical services and, ultimately, reduce the likelihood of future pandemics.
Many world leaders have begun to challenge orthodox economic practices and have called for a system change so that societies can “build back better”, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shifting to a circular economic model will produce a robust defense against further public health crises and will create significant economic opportunities which, in turn, will stimulate the political, economic, and social recovery from the disruptions the pandemic has caused.
At present, there are opportunities for circular innovation to shape the contours of future business models; the management of global resources; and the priorities of societies. This is the focus of a new initiative by the World Economic Forum (WEF), entitled The Great Reset. A shift to an international circular economy is projected to generate global savings of $200 billion per year and create 700,000 net additional jobs in the EU alone, by 2030.
The transition away from an unsustainable linear economic model to a circular economy facilitates both top-down and bottom-up initiatives for sustainable growth. It represents an opportunity for inclusive new strategies which will maintain public support and promote resource-efficient innovation, while simultaneously reducing environmental and climate pressures. Inger Andersen recently highlighted that the world needs “both the private and public sectors to transform our economies to address climate change, reduce pollution and improve resource efficiency.
Collective action is critical to delivering on the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.” The circular economy is a paradigm shift. It represents a transformation in the ways we produce and consume by disconnecting resource extraction from economic value and by designing pollution and waste out of production cycles.
Circular economies will ease the overwhelming burden on Earth’s ecosystems, reduce pollution and limit biodiversity loss, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond these substantial environmental and climate benefits, humankind stands to benefit from the resilience of this economic model.
originated from ; ” Introduction On Thursday, 22 April 2021, Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, …. the third presentation of the Environmental Resilience series, co-organised by the IIEA and the EPA. ”
Author: Luke O Callaghan-White