On the occasion of Stockholm+50 - a major environmental event taking place on 2–3 June 2022, following on from the original UN Conference on the Human Environment that took place in 1972 – the International Affairs think-tank Chatham House published a Global roadmap for an inclusive circular economy. This approach offers systemic solutions to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity destruction and pollution, as well as pathways for inclusive development.
This is an excerpt of the document.

Meeting global needs via the circular economy

The global transition to a circular economy is not an end in itself, rather a means to tackle some of the leading root causes of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. By rethinking how we produce, consume and manage materials, and by redesigning systems of production and consumption, we can reduce pressures on critical ecosystems. Furthermore, by focusing not just on materials and environmental issues, but equally on human needs and sustainable livelihoods, decent work and social justice, the circular economy transition can make important contributions to human development, to reducing poverty and to improving people’s well-being around the world.

Supporting climate mitigation

Approximately 45 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions cannot be tackled with renewable energy alone – these emissions reductions require a shift in the way we use land and in the way we produce and consume goods. Reduced materials demand, material efficiency, and circular economy solutions are therefore critical strategies for achieving a net zero world by the middle of the 21st century, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. In the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the WG III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on mitigation of climate change, published in April 2022, the circular economy is mentioned for the first time by the IPCC as a solution for climate-change mitigation, applicable to many sectors of the economy. It is considered a ‘transformative megatrend’, alongside digitalization and the sharing economy, that will reshape value chains and drive innovation in service delivery towards higher efficiency. The IPCC also recognizes that both sharing and circular economies have been commonplace in developing countries, where reuse, repair, waste collection and recycling form the core of informal economies facilitated by human interventions.

Enhancing biodiversity gain

UNEP’s International Resources Panel estimates that resource-extraction and -processing are an underlying cause behind 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress impacts. The circular economy offers a range of solutions with positive environmental impacts that ultimately also benefit biodiversity. These include lower emissions and pollution levels, improved land productivity and better soil health via soil regeneration techniques, hydro- and aquaponics, vertical farming, surplus food redistribution and revalorization of organic waste by biorefining or composting. Circular economy solutions therefore support the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is being developed by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Preventing pollution

Pollution is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss and is becoming an increasing risk to human health and livelihoods. Pollution has a disproportionate impact on developing countries and vulnerable populations, which tend to be the recipients of illegal waste shipments or are forced to live in proximity to sources of pollution. Developments at the multilateral level in 2022 have elevated the role of the circular economy in pollution prevention. At the latest UNEA 5.2 conference, convened in March 2022, governments adopted a resolution on a global plastics pollution treaty, in which circular solutions will play a key role in efforts to reduce plastics in the environment.
The UNEA 5.2 resolution is a good example of multilateral action. However, current multilateral efforts to tackle growing and multiple pollution crises remain piecemeal.

Contributing to human development

There is a need to better link circular economy solutions and global development efforts. The circular economy can tangibly improve the human development approach, which gives too little consideration to environmental sustainability. Between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste. Circular economy solutions can significantly reduce pollution and mismanaged waste that affects the health of communities around the world, especially that of women and children. In fact, circular solutions will be essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets on good health and well-being, reducing inequality and eradicating poverty. Furthermore, in the context of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs, aligning circular economy with the decent work agenda can create higher-quality jobs and livelihoods, as well as improved and affordable access to essential goods and services.
A social perspective on the circular economy centres on
need satisfaction and well-being as the central goals of economic activity. In this approach, the focus is expanded from mass-producing goods and services that are assumed to fulfil needs, to instead focus on needs first and then to determine what types of products, services, relationships and institutions will help to meet them. Thus, a transition to a socially embedded and inclusive circular economy could help satisfy needs in more resource-efficient ways.

Image: Agence Olloweb (Unsplash)