Last month, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation completed a series of reports on climate change with a strong message. Don’t just reduce emissions; restructure the economy as well, from a once-through wasteful economy to a circular economy. Or else, industry and agriculture will continue to emit a lot of greenhouse gases, because of their sheer size and lack of adapted procedures.
We need to speed up
Addressing emissions in industry and the food system presents a particularly complex challenge, writes the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In industry, there is a growing demand for materials. By 2050, global demand for energy intensive industrial materials such as steel, cement, aluminium and plastics will probably increase by a factor of two to four. Compare that to the slow adoption rate of renewable electricity and process improvements – and it becomes clear that meeting climate targets will be very difficult. Global food demand is thought to increase by almost half. Both consumers and producers will have to change their habits significantly. Success in these sectors will be critical. And we need to speed up. Meeting the 1.5oC climate target requires an annual decarbonisation rate of the energy system of 11.3% – seven times the current rate.
Here is where the circular economy comes in. It is based on three principles. Design out waste and pollution. Keep products and materials in use. And regenerate natural systems. This adds up to a redesign of the entire value chain. First of all, reuse and/or recycling should be part and parcel of product design. Often, materials that emit less CO2 can substitute materials now in production and use. For instance, some biobased plastics can absorb CO2 instead of emitting it when produced. And the Ellen MacArthur foundation itself has delved deep into the area of finding alternatives for Portland cement; the production of which is responsible for some 5% of global CO2 emissions.
The contribution of the circular economy
Production of new materials is the main source of CO2 emissions by industry. But we can change this. By reusing products, we save the energy embedded in them and also prevent new emissions from the production of new products. A particularly wasteful industry now is fashion. The lifetime of clothing products gets shorter all the time; and a substantial proportion of clothes is thrown away even without being sold. And recycling materials requires much less energy than producing them anew.
We need to complement this renewed industry with ‘regenerative agriculture’. With this term, the Ellen MacArthur Foundations means an cultural practice that sequesters CO2 in the soil. This can be done by a variety of techniques, like ‘using organic fertilisers, planting cover crops, employing crop rotation, reducing tillage, and cultivating more crop varieties to promote agro-biodiversity.’ Such a regenerative agriculture will give benefits like ‘improving soil structure to enable better water storage and promoting more biologically active soils that generate their own soil fertility without the need for synthetic inputs.’
Resilience in climate strategies
In this way, the circular economy will form an indispensable component of a climate-friendly economy. Moreover, it will lend resilience to climate strategies. In an industry that keeps materials in use, businesses reduce their dependence on raw materials vulnerable to climate risks. In a system of regenerative agriculture, soils will have a greater capacity to absorb and retain water, increasing resilience against both intense rainfall and drought.
Creating a circular economy is a fundamental step towards achieving climate targets, says the report. It offers a systematic response to the crisis by both reducing emissions and increasing resilience to its effects. The benefits encompass meeting other goals such as creating more liveable cities, distributing value more widely in the economy, and spurring innovation. ‘These attributes make the circular economy a potent contributor to achieving zero-carbon prosperity.’