Every year, Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based non-profit organisation, publishes the Circularity Gap Report.  The aim is to inspire action towards realising a global circular economy.  The first issue in 2018 was an attempt to measure just how circular the world’s economy really is, meaning the amount of reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycling of materials and natural resources.  The answer, unfortunately, is not very much – 9.1% in the first calculation – and a follow-up study in 2020 showed a decline to 8.6%. 

The conclusion emphasises how the current linear economic model (“take-make-consume-throw away”) continues to dominate.  The vast majority of material flows, from extraction of natural resources to end-use products, ultimately end up as waste.  As resources being extracted are far greater than the ability of the planet to replenish them, this economic model has to change or the world faces a growing set of potentially dire consequences.

What is striking about the 2021 version of the Circularity Gap Report is the linkage between Material Flows and Climate Change, or more specifically, the level of emissions of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs).  In a reference to the UN Environment Programme’s annual Emissions Gap Report, climate mitigation strategies can be greatly helped by altering material extraction, handling and use.  Circle Economy claims up to 70% of GHGs are caused by material flows, thus identifying one of the most vital areas to resolve in order to eventually reach a net-zero emissions future.

Materials” here is defined in its broadest sense, essentially any physical substance or object (“Mass”) used to satisfy human consumption, which includes everything from natural resources to agricultural production – now 100 Billion Tonnes worth every year (almost four times the level in 1970).  The Circularity Gap Report breaks this down at the point of resource extraction into Fossil Fuels, Minerals, Ores, Biomass and Waste and calculates the emissions profile for each category.  These resources are then tracked through the various stages of processing, production and materials handling to end up categorised within seven key societal needs – Mobility, Housing, Communication, Healthcare, Services, Consumables, and Nutrition

According to the Report, the most emissions intensive human needs are Mobility, Housing and Nutrition.  Fossil Fuel use in passenger and freight transport being amongst the most polluting.  The Housing sector, with the need for vast amounts of extracted materials, transport and construction, as well as energy use for heating, cooling and lighting, follows close behind.  The result of these measurements emphasises the importance of a more complete (and rapid) societal transformation to have any chance at reaching sustainability goals such as keeping global warming below 2oC this century as pledged by virtually all countries in the Paris Agreement.

The Circularity Gap Report doesn’t just measure impacts, it also proposes solutions, albeit rather broadly.  Take Mobility, for example.  The obvious answer, as noted in the Report, is simply to travel less.  The Covid-19 Pandemic has shown us how, through virtual offices, telecommuting and working from home.  And while there will always be an appetite for travel, with a rebound likely after lengthy lockdowns and restrictions, the Report also suggests additional changes to reduce emissions.  Better vehicle designs with smaller sizes and lighter weight materials to reduce steel and aluminium use.  Optimizing durability by maximizing the potential for repairs and maintenance. Increased utilization of vehicles through shared mobility and public transport.  And finally, end-of-life vehicle management through greater recycling of plastics and metal components.  This type of thinking applies to every category of societal needs. 

Much of the Circularity Gap Report’s final pages are a plea to countries preparing for the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.  The Report’s circular economy solutions add up to a drop of 39% in global emissions and 28% in virgin resource extraction, attractive prospects given the urgency to curb the impending climate breakdown, resource scarcity and ecological collapse that business-as-usual would lead to.  While every country is at a different stage of development, the pledges and NDCs (Nationally Determined Commitments) could be used to underline a desired transition to a global circular economy that produces a more resource-efficient and low-carbon future. If anything, the Circularity Gap Report demonstrates that the issue of Climate Change, and associated solutions, are not just about renewable energy or energy efficiency.  There is a strong link to material flows and resource use.  A transformation away from today’s wasteful practices, however, requires a complete rethink of the global economic model in order to maximise the chances of bright future.  It also requires global collaboration, as material flows and supply chains criss-cross borders.  COP26 will be yet another test of leadership and priorities towards making the transformation happen.

Donald L. Jurries II

Featured Images: Circle Economy – Circularity Gap Reports