The Path Towards Climate Neutrality: The Circular Economy

Climate change and global warming are an undeniable reality, a transboundary challenge that affects everyone and everything on earth and, as such, actions to mitigate the effects are imperative. Now more than ever we need to focus on the core of the problem, and we shall fundamentally change the way production and consumption unfold. The circular economy (CE) aims to transform the mindset of consumers and producers alike with the ultimate goal of ensuring sustainable development. This article will argue that a shift to a circular economy is critical to achieving climate neutrality. It will highlight two central areas that have an immense impact on the environment, namely the plastic and the food industries, and how the CE can improve the situation.


World Economic Forum. (2018). Circular economy in cities: evolving the model for a sustainable urban future [Illustration]. World Economic Forum.


Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, most notably carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, are the main driver of climate change. If global warming goes on unmitigated, it will give rise to devastating consequences, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, altering ecosystems, poverty, climate migration, food shortages, and human health issues. Furthermore, the worst climate impacts will be unavoidable if global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In line with the aforementioned issues, one of the main goals worldwide at the moment is achieving climate neutrality, also known as net zero emissions. The terms are used interchangeably and refer to the emissions produced that must equal the emissions removed through the earth’s natural absorption. It is important to clarify that net zero emission and climate neutrality do not refer to the complete elimination of emissions, because such a task is simply not possible in today’s world.


The ‘make-use-dispose’ model of production and consumption prevailed in the world until a few decades ago, when the circular economy model started to materialize. There are several interpretations of the CE, for example, the European Commission’s definition focuses on an economy where the value of products, materials, and resources, is maintained in the economy for as long as possible and thus the generation of waste and pollution is minimised. An overarching goal of the CE is to reduce GHG emissions across the value chain. Concretely, the CE entails actions directed at waste prevention (maintenance and re-use of products) and materials recovery (re-use, reconditioning, remanufacturing, recovery and recycling). Burning waste to create energy and landfilling should not prevail in a CE model; however, they still occur in practice.



Eurostat. (n.d.). Overview - Circular Economy [Illustration]. Eurostat.


Firstly, the plastic sector presents many issues that contribute to climate change, from the creation to the disposal phase. On the one hand, the production of plastic and the incineration of plastic waste creates a substantial amount of carbon dioxide, the GHG with the largest share. On the other hand, up to 4% of the global production of plastics is disposed in the oceans, generating significant pollution and health risks. Additionally, less than 10% of the global plastic waste is recycled. In a CE model, the emphasis lies on increasing plastic recycling and waste reduction. For example, a measure that tackles the consumption and production of plastics in accordance with a CE model is the introduction of biodegradable or compostable plastics. Similarly, another measure with the same scope is the European Union’s ban on single-use plastics. Both of these strategies would not only facilitate the recycling process, but would also create less damaging waste. Another way to conform to the CE model is to provide opportunities for customers to bring in their used products in order to ensure recycling and remanufacturing. This brings benefits both to producers and to the environment. The computer company Dell, for instance, implemented such a program in 2017, recycling used parts and transforming them into new parts, which generated approximately $2 million in savings.


Secondly, the food sector is widely known for generating over one-third of global GHG emissions. In particular, meat and dairy production places immense pressure on resources (e.g. land) and it is accountable for approximately 14% of global GHG emissions. In a CE model, tackling the issues associated with food production and consumption requires substituting the raw material inputs. In effect, we have witnessed a growing rise of plant-based foods that use significantly fewer resources, especially land resources. To illustrate, Impossible Foods are a pioneering plant-based company that supply plant-based products to over 7,000 restaurants globally. Furthermore, one-third of global food production is lost or wasted across the supply chain. An initiative that aims to tackle this is the ‘Farm to fork’ strategy, put forward by the European Commission, which aims to reduce food waste and encourage sustainable food production and consumption. From a wider perspective, a Circular Economy could reduce emissions by eliminating waste and regenerating nature. There have been numerous initiatives to reduce food waste by redistributing products, such as Too Good To Go (Denmark), Food Shifts (United States) and Happy Market (Belgium). Regenerating nature is a goal of Danone, a food company, which aims to transition towards production models that renew soil health.


By way of conclusion, climate change and global warming are speeding up the disruption of business-as-usual patterns of production and consumption. This, in turn, enables and encourages a change of mindset, which is put forward by the circular economy model. There are numerous instruments and measures, in line with the circular economy model, that support a climate-neutral world, which should be adopted by all industries.



References

  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2021). Completing the Picture. How the circular economy tackles climate change. Retrieved December 2021, from https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/completing-the-picture

  • European Commission. (2020). Circular Economy Action Plan.

  • Lacy, P., Long, J., & Spindler, W. (2021). The Circular Economy Handbook: Realizing the Circular Advantage. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved December 2021, from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/strategy/circular-economy-action-plan_de

  • Maitre-Ekern, E. (2018). Exploring the Spaceship Earth: A Circular Economy for Products. SSRN Electronic Journal. Published. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3135136

  • United Nations Climate Change. (2021). A Beginner’s Guide to Climate Neutrality. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://unfccc.int/blog/a-beginner-s-guide-to-climate-neutrality

Image Sources

  • World Economic Forum. (2018). Circular economy in cities: evolving the model for a sustainable urban future [Illustration]. World Economic Forum.

  • Eurostat. (n.d.). Overview - Circular Economy [Illustration]. Eurostat.



Author Photo

Gilda Liana Mazilu

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