Circular economy can slash global emissions by 39%, says major new report

A major new report, released to coincide with the original dates for the World Economic Forum's event in Davos, has found that 39% of global annual emissions could be mitigated by changing the ways in which we use natural raw materials.

Circle Economy has repeatedly stated that the majority of global annual emissions are released during the extraction of materials and manufacturing of goods

Circle Economy has repeatedly stated that the majority of global annual emissions are released during the extraction of materials and manufacturing of goods

Produced annually by think-tank Circle Economy, the Circularity Gap report tracks the amount of resources used by humanity every year and analyses the proportion which is reused or properly recycled. Last year’s report found that of more than 100 billion tons of extracted materials, less than 9% re-enters the circular economy.

This year, in light of the growing global net-zero movement, the report also outlines the links between linear systems of excessive consumption and climate change. It states that 22.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted due to the production of new materials and products every year – equivalent to more than double China’s national annual emissions. Key emissions ‘hotspots’ include extraction and manufacturing.

Circle Economy believes that the bulk of these emissions can be mitigated.  

The biggest opportunity for reducing emissions is in the built environment sector, which represents more than one-third of the world’s energy demand, according to the think-tank. The report outlines measures for building using recycled, reused and responsibly-sourced materials to build energy-efficient structures that can be linked to low-carbon heating and cooling. If taken in tandem, the measures detailed could mitigate at least 11 billion tonnes of CO2e emissions globally each year.

Circle Economy also sees major opportunities in transforming transport systems and land use.

On the former, it sees lighter vehicles and more efficient route planning, along with electric and low-emission vehicles, helping to decarbonise road transport. It also details measures to reduce the number of flights and international cargo shipping trips. Some 5.6 billion tonnes of CO2e can be mitigated here.

On the latter, the IPCC estimates that land use accounts for around a quarter of man-made GHG emissions. As many other green groups have done, Circle Economy advocates for measures that discourage over-production and encourage regenerative practices and plant-based diets. It forecasts a potential GHG reduction of 4.3 billion tonnes.

Nonetheless, Circle Economy is warning that many nations are not properly considering the benefits of the circular economy approach in their green recovery commitments. Its report cites annual emissions figures from the UN’s 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which revealed that annual emissions reached a record high in 2019. Reductions significant enough to deliver the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory are not yet guaranteed, the UN report concluded.  

“Governments are making huge decisions that will shape our climate future,” Circle Economy’s chief executive Martjin Lopes Cardozo said. “They are spending billions to stimulate their economies after the Covid-19 pandemic, and they are committed to strengthening their climate commitments ahead of [COP26]. Circular economy strategies hold the key to a resource-efficient, low-carbon and inclusive future.”

Circular Economy National Hub

The publication of this year’s Circularity Gap Report comes shortly after UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced plans to fund the creation of a new circular economy hub at the University of Exeter.

Staff at the new facility will coordinate work and enable knowledge-sharing between five R&D centres across the country, where academics and businesses are working to develop solutions for some of the world’s most linear sectors, including textiles and chemicals.

The £3.5m hub will also act as the UK’s first national circular economy “observatory”, collecting and analysing data that will be used to inform key policy and business decisions.

Sarah George



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