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Squaring the circle between growth & sustainability

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:05

What do we need to know to trigger the shift from a linear to a circular economy? Karl Falkenberg, Director-General of European Commission’s DG Environment debates whether a full systemic change is required, including a radical way in the way we consume and produce. 

Karl Falkenberg

A few days ago the outcome document of the post 2015 agenda “Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development” was adopted and will formally be endorsed by Heads of State at the Summit later this month. With this there is an agreement establishing a universal agenda for sustainable development calling on the world to move towards sustainable consumption and production patterns and efficient use of natural resources, halving per capita global food waste, sound management of chemicals and wastes, substantially reducing waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse, more sustainable practices at the level of businesses, building people’s awareness of sustainable development and lifestyles.

Let’s recall the basics: We all rely on natural resources, such as land, air, water, metal ores, minerals or wood, to live and thrive. Natural resources are derived from the environment. Some of them are renewable others are not. Some are essential for our survival while most are used for satisfying our desires. However, natural resources are limited and we are currently not using them in a sustainable way. Fast growing population of consumers globally and the increased per capita consumption of an expanding middle class are challenging the very essence of our consumerism society.

By 2050, the world population may reach 9 to 11 billion, and middle income earners globally will have grown from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 4.9 billion already by 2030, with consumption rising sharply. Global extraction of resources is expected to increase by 75 percent in 25 years.

Demand for food, feed and fibre will increase by 70 percent by 2050, while 60 percent of the ecosystems underpinning their supply are already degraded or used unsustainably. On top of that, to keep the global temperature increase below 2ºC, CO2 emissions between now and 2050 must be kept limited to a maximum of 1000 billion tonnes. This would compel us to leave most of known oil, gas, and coal reserves in the ground. Together, they account for 2900 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Pressures on resources and environmental concerns are one of the key long-term trends affecting growth

In a world where demand and competition for finite and often scarce resources will continue to increase, and pressure on resources is causing greater environmental degradation and fragility, sustained growth and prosperity will critically depend on making better use of those resources.

The Circular Economy concept offers a solution to this challenge

It is an alternative to the prevalent linear economic model, which is based on the “take-make-consume-discard” consumption pattern. We cannot afford to live like that for much longer.

Early in 2015, the European Commission announced that it will adopt, by the end of this year, a comprehensive and more ambitious strategy for promoting the transition to a more circular economy. Preparatory work on this strategy is in full swing, and a public consultation is under way. It is thus timely to reflect on the relevance of this initiative.

Moving from a linear to a circular economic model makes economic sense

In 2014, the Commission had estimated the potential net benefits from improved resource efficiency for businesses in the EU to be in the range of €245 to €604 billion. Increasing resource productivity by 30 percent could also create 2 million extra jobs by 2030.

However, what do we need to do in order trigger the shift to a Circular Economy? While experts debate whether a full systemic change is required, including a radical shift in the way we produce and consume, the change is already under way. In 2014, we started by looking at the part of the economic circle where the need for a transformation was most evident: waste. We need to establish better separate collection of clean material fractions that could be channelled back into the production processes, and make land filling a last resort for waste that cannot be reused, recycled or recovered. Then we were reminded that waste is just one part of the story, and we mustn’t neglect “the other half of the economic circle”. Issues such as sustainable product policy, with product design as the guiding principle, should be at the heart of the changes.

We need to design clean materials and products with a view to their future re-use and recycling; we need credible information on these products that consumers can easily understand to make the right choices. We should fight early obsolescence by enabling repair and upgrading of products.

To this end, we need a solid set of actions promoting innovation for circular economy, including new business models, technologies, and tools such as public procurement. To achieve this, we need good legislation, dedicated EU funding, and a serious implementation effort. The upcoming EU package on Circular Economy will present proposals for action at the EU level that contribute to the first two elements – the third one will require mobilising additional political will in the Member States so much more will need to be done at national, regional and local level.

More than ever, the future of our planet is in our hands. We know the tools we need to make the shift. We should now start using them.

It has been forecasted that global demand for resources will triple by 2050. That demand, however, cannot be satisfied. We already consume some 1.5 planets’ worth of resources every single year, and following the estimates, would need around four planets full of resources to satisfy the demand by 2050 under business as usual. There are however limits to growth – we only have this one planet.