Circular Economy Missing Link in Fight Against Climate Change

Antwerp, 18 March 2019 For four days, Antwerp was the epicentre of the circular economy. More than 750 company leaders, scientists and policy makers from all over the world came to the city from 24-27 February 2019 to participate in the World Resources Forum (WRF). On the menu? Sessions on the power of the circular economy and the link with climate change, and an introduction to numerous pioneering projects and initiatives that are driving the transition.

They presented eight new perspectives on the circular economy.

1. A fully circular economy will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60 percent

Greenhouse gas emissions are primarily seen as an energy problem. We therefore tend to view the transition to renewable energy or the taking of energy efficiency measures as the only solutions to climate change. But little is said about the relationship between greenhouse gases and material-related processes. At the WRF, the argument went like this: “If climate change is the inconvenient truth, the potential of the circular economy as an enabler for carbon emission reduction is the overlooked truth.”

new perspectives on the circular economyResearch by the OECD links more than half of total greenhouse gas emissions directly to our use of (raw) materials. Consider the extraction of raw materials, their transport, the processing of waste, loss during recycling, the use of materials for building or producing consumer goods … The Flemish research organisation VITO calculated that more than two thirds of the gross domestic energy consumption in the Belgian Flanders region in 2014 came from material-related activities. In addition to binding energy targets, policy must therefore include objectives with respect to our use of materials. These indicate how much material an economy can use to achieve a sustainable level of resource use, and could give the circular economy a major boost.

2. The circular economy also means sustainable consumption

The concept of the circular economy is often interpreted rather narrowly as the reuse or recycling of raw materials. But consuming with greater awareness and more sustainably is also an integral part of this. Moreover, it is important to consider the entire life cycle of products. Thus, the largest part of the carbon footprint of our consumption arises not in Flanders itself, but abroad. The carbon footprint of Flemish consumption is not yet being taken into account in the greenhouse gas accounting.

Other, more sustainable production and consumption patterns must therefore be encouraged. According to Janez Potočnik (former European Commissioner for the Environment and current co-chair of the UN International Resource Panel), SDG 12 ‘Sustainable production and consumption’ therefore forms the basis of all other Sustainable Development Goals.

3. Radical lifestyle changes that benefit all of society

new perspectives on the circular economy
Footprint of our Western lifestyle must be reduced, Lewis Akenji

One of the most frequently heard comments at the congress: to achieve the SDGs and the climate objectives, we must radically change our lifestyle. And fast. Lewis Akenji of the Japanese Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) calculated the carbon footprint of our lifestyle in the study 1.5 Degree Lifestyles. This includes all direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions associated with household consumption. According to Akenji, the footprint of our Western lifestyle must be reduced by 80 to 93 percent by 2050 to achieve the climate goals. Residents of developing countries will have to adjust their lifestyle so that their footprint is reduced by 23 to 84 percent. This can be achieved by taking public transport, sharing a car instead of buying one, living smaller, purchasing heat pumps and eating less meat and dairy products.

According to the speakers and participants this change must be done in a social and feasible way. In concrete terms, this means that the necessary infrastructure must be available (such as public transport), and that we must be able to count on supportive policy and on affordable goods, services and education.

4. After the Climate Change Conference: The Raw Materials Convention

The numerous innovations and cases prove that recycling solutions are already widely available. It is now important to scale this up. But to ensure a definitive breakthrough, policy makers will have to make courageous choices. This is often the sticking point. Which is why Janez Potočnik of the International Resource Panel proposes establishing a UN convention to open up the discussion on managing natural resources, following the example of the Paris Climate Change Conference.

Time is running short. Indeed, the speakers agreed that the climate protests have created the momentum needed to force the issue. We need to wake up now and take the concerns of our young people very seriously.

5. Cities as engine of the circular economy

If we do not switch quickly to a circular economy, cities will suffer greatly, warn several experts. Water, land and materials will become increasingly scarce and fall into the hands of a happy few. The result is that even more people will migrate to the cities. By 2030, an estimated 60 percent of the world’s population will live in the city. It is necessary to anticipate this and to organise our cities in a circular fashion.

Cities are a very suitable testing ground for the circular society: the distance between production and consumption is small and cycles can be closed locally. In addition, city and municipal authorities are close to their citizens: they can take compelling initiatives that convince residents to participate in the transition to a circular economy.

6. Land is a raw material

new perspectives on the circular economy
“We need a Paris agreement for biodiversity”, Hans Bruyninckx

We must see our land and soil as a valuable resource. That was the message of Hans Bruyninckx, director of the European Environment Agency, and Claudia Olazábal, head of the Land Use and Management Department of the European Directorate-General for Environment. Our soil is a living organism that is not only the cornerstone of our food and energy system, but also important to our health and that of nature, was the message.

In other words: what do land and soil have to do with circular economy? By keeping them healthy, we can reuse more land and the productivity of the crops is greatly improved, so that we need less land. In its Vision 2050, the Flemish Government identified the use of space as a fully-fledged part of the circular economy.

By cleverly reusing our land for various social functions, we can give space back to nature. Bruyninckx repeatedly commented that he is deeply concerned about the loss of biodiversity in Europe. “We need a Paris agreement for biodiversity”, he added.

7. Collaboration as lever for a successful circular economy

The innovative projects presented at the WRF all had something in common: they were created through partnerships across sectors and national borders. They put into practice SDG 17: Strengthening the means of implementation and revitalising the global partnership for sustainable development. Flemish Minister for the Environment Koen Van den Heuvel sees cooperation between all societal actors – government, academics, industry and citizen – as an important priority. “To get the circular economy in Flanders off the ground, we founded Flanders Circular a few years ago, a partnership of companies, governments, civil society and the knowledge world.” Flanders Circular has already launched a number of successful Green Deals. For the Circular Purchasing Green Deal, 150 organisations committed themselves to facilitate or apply circular purchasing. The Circular Building Green Deal was signed by 250 participants. Flanders Circular also finances innovative circular business cases with its open calls. 53 projects were approved in 2018, which together received 4,565 million euros.

8. Flanders is a circular economy pioneer

Flanders has a strong reputation in the area of the circular economy. The Circular South pilot project is underway in the New South district of Antwerp, where eight partners including the city of Antwerp and imec are investigating how they can encourage residents to be more aware when dealing with raw materials. In other words, the project focuses on a change in behaviour, one of the major challenges of the transition to a circular city. The results of this social experiment are eagerly awaited at home and abroad.

Other pioneering circular projects have also proven very successful. The old petroleum docks in the port of Antwerp are being transformed into Blue Gate Antwerp: a sustainable, circular business park, where economic growth and sustainable business go hand in hand. Blue Gate Antwerp aims to create greater added value and higher employment, but also to ensure greater material recovery, less CO2 and more clean air. In the long term, the site intends to generate more sustainable energy than it uses.

“Flawless event”

Bas de Leeuw, Managing Director of the World Resources Forum, is full of praise for the organisation team of the Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM). “Together with the WRF team they organised a flawless event, in which the participants were immersed in a ‘circular economy’ show: music, dance, good and responsible food and drink, a fashion show, a walk through Antwerp … The conclusions of the conference have already been shared with the European Commission and the United Nations, and will be followed up in the coming sessions of the World Resources Forum and our partners.”

Translation of article orginally written in Flemish/Dutch by Inès Aoun for SUSANOVA, sustainable business and innovation platform for Flanders

See our earlier article here, and browse for the full programme, speakers and photos our special WRF19 website.