Net-zero not possible without circular economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation finds

Focusing on decarbonising the energy sector alone will not put the world within touching distance of a net-zero carbon economy, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which claims that the transition to a circular economy is also vital.

Net-zero not possible without circular economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation finds

The Completing the Picture: How the Circular Economy tackles Climate Change report, published by the Foundation (EMF), in collaboration with Material Economics, found that moving to renewables across the globe will only address 55% of greenhouse gas emissions. To tackle the remaining 45%, the paper notes that transitioning to close-loop value chains, diet shift, emerging innovations and carbon capture and storage are all required.

The report examined the role of the circular economy in tackling overlooked emissions, namely in the production of steel, plastic, aluminium, cement and food. According to the report, keeping products and materials in use can reduce emissions per sector by up to 40%. In the food system, regenerative farming and designing out waste can reduce emissions as part of a circular economy by 49%.

Overall, the report suggests that adopting a circular economy framework across those production areas would achieve emissions reductions totalling 9.3bn tonnes – equivalent to eliminating current emissions from all forms of transport globally.

“Switching to renewable energy plays a vital role in addressing climate change, but this alone will not be enough. In order to achieve targets on climate, it is critical that we transform how we design, make, and use products, and food. Completing the picture through a transition to a circular economy can enable us to meet the needs of a growing global population, while creating a prosperous and resilient economy that can run in the long term,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“This paper shows that transitioning to a circular economy is not only an opportunity to tackle emissions across sectors, but to design an economy that is restorative and regenerative, creating benefits for society, businesses, and the environment.”

Closed-loop, net-zero

The EMF hopes that the report provides a clear message for other industries that traditionally operate within a linear economy of take, make and dispose, such as fashion, electronics and packaging.

The report references the need to reach net-zero by 2050, as outlined in the IPCC Special Report document. That report warns that the world is already 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and that an increase to 2C would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The report predicts that if the world can become carbon-neutral by 2047, we will have a 66% chance of meeting the most ambitious end of the Paris Agreement pledge.

Commenting on the report, Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Founding Partner, Global Optimism said: “Carbon constraints actually represent huge ingenuity opportunities. That is true for every company, for every city and any country.

“That is the direction in which we need to move, and this report offers compelling figures to give confidence in our ability to optimize decarbonisation and economic development in mutual support of each other.”

The findings of the EMF report build on the suggestions of a report released at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, which outlined the urgent need for nations to “wake up to the potential” of the circular economy in order to push the world towards the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious pathway.

The Circularity Gap Report 2019, released by non-profit Circle Economy, which consists of a member community of businesses including Arup, ING and VF Corp. The report notes that most governments are failing to consider circular economy policies in order to limit global warming to 1.5C.

The report notes that just 9% of the global economy is considered circular, meaning that less than 10% of the 92.8 billion tonnes of material extracted for use is reused annually. With global material use more than tripling since the 1970s – and set to double again by 2050 – Circle Economy is advising governments to rethink approaches to resource use in select sectors.

The net-zero transition at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum returns in 2020, as some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability gather at the Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Tom Szaky, TerraCycle CEO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO plus directors and senior managers from Interface, Vattenfall, John Lewis, Taylor Wimpey, Aviva, Pret A Manger, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit:

Matt Mace

Comments (1)

  1. Andy Kadir-Buxton says:

    We could biochar all organic waste, taking CO2 from the atmosphere and locking it in the soil for thousands of years as a soil improver.

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