Late last month global circular economy organisation Circle Economy released their latest edition of the Circularity Gap Report, an initiative that aims to measure the state of the world economy from a circular perspective and identify key interventions to transition to a more circular model.
Let’s deal with the most concerning aspect of their findings first. In 2018, when the first gap report was released, Circle Economy established that the global economy was just 9.1 per cent circular, already indicating a huge gap between the amount of resources we extract and what we effectively recover.
Rather than increasing the amount of materials we reuse and recycle, however, the 2020 Gap Report found we have gone backwards. According to the latest available figures, we are consuming more than 100 billion tonnes of materials a year to meet human needs while reusing just 8.6 per cent of this total.
But the 2021 edition of the report has an even more significant (and positive) learning – that circular economy strategies can play a defining role in avoiding climate catastrophe.
The good news is we only need to double the circularity of the world economy to 17 per cent to allow us to limit global warming to well below 2-degrees and meet our Paris agreement climate targets.
Implementing such strategies can help the global economy reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 23 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, about 39 per cent below our output in 2019. To put that number in context, it’s estimated current national climate policies can deliver a reduction of just 11 to 13 billion tonnes CO2 equivalents.
To put it simply, to address climate change we must make our global economy more circular. So how do we do it?
The 2021 Circularity Gap Report approaches this admittedly complex question by identifying the impact of seven key societal needs: housing, mobility, nutrition, communication, healthcare, consumables and services. The first three are responsible for almost 70 per cent of global emissions. These needs, plus the fundamental issue of waste management, are the areas where circular strategies can have the greatest impact.
But how we approach implementing circular strategies can’t be the same across the board; countries at different stages of development will require different interventions in order to be successful.
Australia is part of the group of developed countries described as “shift” countries by the Circularity Gap Report (CGR), which refers to higher-income countries that have already developed the capacity to meet the basic needs of their citizens. While just 16 per cent of the world’s population resides in these countries, they consume 31 per cent of resources and generate 43 per cent of emissions.
These countries, including Australia, are most responsible for climate change both historically and presently (at least on a per capita basis) and those who must take primary responsibility for taking action.
Thankfully, implementing a circular economy can allow us to transform this narrative. Breaking interventions down into the key areas outlined by the CGR of housing, mobility and nutrition reveals a path forwards that can address climate change while creating a more sustainable economy in the process.
Let’s start with the built environment, where Australia is doing relatively well in some areas. While overall consumption continues to rise with population growth, energy and water efficiency have both increased in recent years while per capita car use in Australian cities is decreasing.
With our population projected to increase to around 40 million by 2055, however, we need to do much more.
For one, we need to stop building the largest houses in the world; a whopping 235.8 square metres in 2019-20. Besides the vast amounts of carbon-intensive construction materials such as cement and steel this requires, in the absence of renewable energy housing also creates significant emissions from heating and cooling.
This is without even mentioning the significant amounts of waste generated in the process of building our houses, with the construction industry spending the most on waste services of any industry sector.
Building smaller, more efficient houses, built to last and can be dismantled at end of life should be at the top of our priority list when it comes to circular interventions. This same approach can also be applied to all other buildings.
With coronavirus emptying offices in capital cities and encouraging many to consider a sea-change to regional areas, the other aspect of the built environment we should make a priority to address is retrofitting office space. Doing so would not only serve to address the issue of office space going to waste, but also ease the burden of urban expansion on our natural environment.
Converting former industrial buildings such as warehouses for commercial and residential purposes has become a booming trend in recent years, but the same can’t be said for office space. With COVID-19 providing the perfect impetus for action, it’s time we started to address this evident inefficiency.
Mobility is another area where circular interventions can have a significant impact on Australia’s overall emissions footprint. Last year’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory report revealed transportation accounted for 18.9 per cent of all emissions in the 12 months between September 2018 and 2019, up from 17 per cent in 2017.
While COVID-19 resulted in a large decline in mobility generally, a closer look at the trends reveals it has also encouraged a relative increase in car use and relative decrease in public transport use.
We clearly need to improve our transport energy efficiency and can do so through targeted circular interventions to encourage low-carbon mobility. Avoidance should be the first priority, so the trend towards remote and flexible working arrangements should be encouraged.
Moving towards active transport is another means of avoiding transport emissions and we have already seen cycling infrastructure and uptake increase in the wake of last year’s pandemic. This development must be reinforced with policy and infrastructure to support active transport from all levels of government.
Public transport also needs to be a priority, with the sector constrained by urban planning designed by and for the car for far too long. Plans to transition Australian bus fleets to electric vehicles are positive, but can only bring us so far if urban sprawl continues without appropriate attention paid to public transport or, alternatively, mixed land-use to ensure work opportunities can be found close to home.
Car/ride sharing technologies such as GoGet and Uber that challenge traditional private car ownership also have the potential to reduce emissions and demand for materials with less cars are required on the road.
We also need circular economy interventions if we hope to reduce the emissions footprint of our food. For starters, we need to waste less food. It’s estimated food waste in Australia accounts for more than five per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions with a cost to the economy of about $20 billion dollars each year.
The National Food Waste Strategy is aiming to cut food waste in half by 2030 as part of the National Waste Action Plan, with significant changes to consumer behaviour, organics processing capacity and industry regulation required to make this happen.
The good news is that recent findings show 76 per cent of Australian’s are motivated to reduce food waste, so consumers are ready to do their part. This is important as households are responsible for just over third (34 per cent) of total food waste.
The Government’s target to halve the amount of all organic waste (food and garden waste) sent to landfill for disposal by 2030 is a critical part of the equation. This will involve a huge increase in the availability of Food and Garden Organics (FOGO) collection services to all sectors of society
We also need to reduce food waste at the source as harvest-ready produce that is not harvested and/or ploughed in represents just under a third (31 per cent) of all food waste. Removing barriers such as the strict cosmetic requirements imposed by retailers should ensure that most food produced makes it to market.
In summary, the Circular Gap Report 2021 is a fantastic resource to show why increasing the circularity of our economy is so critical to avoiding a climate crisis while greatly reducing the stress we put on our biosphere to meet our societal needs. Please take the time to learn from it.
Paul Klymenko is CEO at Planet Ark Environmental Foundation, the organisation behind the Australian Circular Economy Hub. He has worked in the environmental field for over 25 years as an environmental researcher, retailer, writer and ethical investment fund manager.