The net-zero transition needs the circular economy transition – so how do we communicate the link?

As nations ramp up efforts to increase energy security by accelerating the low-carbon energy transition, they will also need to rethink the ‘take-make-dispose’ if they are to reach net-zero. So, how can we change the hearts and minds of decision-makers and the general public?

The net-zero transition needs the circular economy transition – so how do we communicate the link?

Pictured: People using a community fridge, designed to prevent food waste. Image: Hubbub

September 2019 saw the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Material Economics publishing a landmark report, widely regarded as the first to fully assess which proportions of global emissions were attributable to energy and which were generated by the ways in which we use materials and products.

The headline conclusion was that the energy transition could address 55% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of the remaining 45% needing to be addressed by the adoption of a circular economy with respect for planetary boundaries. A significant proportion of the world’s emissions are attributable to linear models of consumption for building materials, plastics and food, the report concluded.

Building on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work, think-tank Circle Economy’s 2021 Circularity Gap report concluded that 39% of global annual emissions could be prevented by changing the ways in which we use natural resources.

Despite these major pieces of research receiving much media attention and being laid before policymakers, the need for a circular economy was all but absent from COP26. There was no mention of the need for reducing material use, reusing materials or recycling materials on the UK’s Presidency Programme, and this absence – while partly expected, given the historic lack of focus on the circular economy at COPs –  did raise eyebrows.

Recounting her time at COP26, WRAP’s director of insights and innovation Claire Shrewsbury tells edie: “I think [the absence of the circular economy in COP negotiations] is partly due to how Nationally Determined Contributions [to the Paris Agreement] are set out. It’s consumption emissions which are generated outside of the country which are really important, but usually not mentioned. Some countries are adding circular economy contributions into their NDCs, but there aren’t enough of these nations.

“We’ve really got to make sure that… resource efficiency, the transition to a circular economy, is seen at all levels as just as important – if not more important – as energy decarbonisation.”

This isn’t to say that the circular economy was not mentioned at all at COP26. However, the discussions were led by non-state actors including businesses and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Non-state discussions are not brought to the official negotiating tables for the final pact.

For nations such as the UK, which have offshored much manufacturing, consumption emissions are significant. The term is used to refer to emissions embedded in materials, products and services that are imported. By WWF’s calculations, consumption emissions account for 46% of the UK’s total annual emissions footprint – but it is excluded from accounting for the legally binding 2050 net-zero goal.

It is noteworthy that,  at the UK level,  there a disconnect between policymaking on the energy transition and policymaking on resources. The former sits with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the latter with the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).

WRAP has stated that, if the Government’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution were coupled with a similar plan for resource efficiency, the emissions reductions achieved would be 50% higher.

Policy and business feedback loops

The UK Government has faced many calls over the past three years for a more joined-up approach to policymaking on net zero, from businesses, think-tanks, MPs and all manner of other interested groups. As well as arguments that policy gaps could jeopardize efforts to ‘keep 1.5C alive’, it has also been highlighted time and again that disjointed policymaking could lead to a failure to unlock the full benefits of the net-zero transition – job creation, international trade, societal benefits. In turn, this could risk a loss of trust in the transition by businesses and the general public, further hampering progress.

The same can be said of the circular economy. While big companies which have long profited from making and selling vast quantities of throwaway goods have argued that a drop in linear consumption would lead to increased unemployment, a 2021 Green Alliance report outlined how a holistic circular economy approach would create 450,000 new jobs for the UK alone by 2035.

A circular economy would also bring benefits in terms of professionals and members of the public meeting people within local communities as they share, resell and repair items. This would boost skills and reduce feelings of loneliness and disconnection. Moreover, it’s an opportunity for business innovation and, thus, new investment avenues.

For WRAP’s Shrewsbury, “messaging and investment needs to go beyond recycling” to help unlock these benefits in full. Recycling, she says, is what many people immediately think of when the term ‘circular economy’ is mentioned – whether they are a policymaker, business decision-maker or member of the public.

The Stockholm Environment Institute’s head of division for societies, climate and policy support, Fedra Vanhuyse, takes a similar line of thought. Pointing to the Institute’s evidence map of a decade’s worth of circular economy research, she tells edie: “What we have seen so far is that most strategies on circular economy developed by [European] governments focus on recycling and recovery, two of the lowest R’s in the R-framework.

“This R-framework classifies strategies, ranking from the largest impact – refuse, to reduce, to repair, to recycling and recovery manufacturing.”

As has been the case with policymaking on emissions mitigation, both Shrewsbury and Vanhuyse believe that the private sector will play a key role in pushing Governments towards more joined-up policymaking on the circular economy, in which the R-framework is taken in the correct order rather than being inverted so recycling comes first. Shrewsbury emphasizes how businesses representing more than 60% of the UK’s clothing market are now signed up to WRAP’s Textiles 2030 initiative, which is pushing for 1.5C-aligned decarbonisation and the adoption of circular economy principles this decade.

Venhuyse, meanwhile, points to the fact that even businesses which may not be leading the way on sustainability are likely already engaging with policymakers amid an ever-growing list of global supply chain challenges (semiconductors, sunflower oil and wheat, to name but three product supply chains that have been severely impacted by the global events of 2020-2022).

“What we do see in the discourse [between business and policy] is more from a security perspective, with global supply chains being under pressure at the moment, that policymakers see the circular economy as a way to mitigate that risk. Producing locally and making the supply chain shorter [are potential parts of the solution].”

From individual consumers to sharing communities  

In summary, awareness of the links between resource use and emissions is low among businesses, and even lower still in UK and international policymaking. At present, it is likely also low among the general public.

Research conducted by WRAP last year found that two-thirds of UK adults do not see a “clear link” between food waste and greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite the fact that food waste accounts for 8-10% of global annual emissions. WRAP is yet to research perceptions around this link for textiles and plastics, but Shrewsbury says she believes awareness is low here, also.

In boosting awareness, she notes: “We’ve got to be mindful of how we communicate this cut-through. We know that different people respond to environmental messages in completely different ways, depending on the product or activity as well as the person.

“We’ve got to base messaging on what their priorities are and what the advantages are to them. At the moment, we can really lean into cost savings, particularly on things like food, but also textiles.”

Research out this week revealed that the average cost of basic goods and services for British families with two adults and two children is not £400 per month higher than this time last year.  Initial analyses have shown that the rising cost of living will force most to cut back on the purchase of goods and services beyond the basics, and prompt them to look at options for eliminating wasted spending on basics, like food that goes in the bin.

So, in this environment, would it be better to forego climate messaging altogether?

Shrewsbury says: “If people don’t always understand that waste links to climate change, maybe we’ll need to live with that. In my mind, as long as they change their behaviours, it almost does not matter why, because the impact is the same.”

Changing the behaviours, she emphasizes, will always require more action than simply telling people what to do and why they should. They will also need the right enabling environment to make behaviours stick as day-to-day habits.

“I’m really mindful that the solutions we present to the public have got to be available for all, not for a privileged selection who can opt-in to a ‘greener’ lifestyle,” she says. “The circular economy needs to be, almost, the default option rather than the ‘nice-to-have’ option.”

The Stockholm Environment Institute’s Vanhuyse agrees, adding: “It should be easier and cheaper to do the right thing. [This will require] regulatory and economic policy instruments to be used alongside voluntary instruments.”

Both Shrewsbury and Vanhuyse highlight the potential for sharing economy models and second-hand buying and selling to scale up during the cost-of-living crisis. Sharing not only brings down the upfront cost of accessing a product but can also bring down operational costs – for example, visiting a launderette rather than running a washer-dryer at home.

Several businesses and communities are already leading the way on the sharing economy. There were 1,500 community repair cafes worldwide in 2018, and now there are more than 2,000. The UK’s community fridge network, spearheaded by Hubbub, is expanding from 150 locations to 500. Five London boroughs now host a ‘Library of Things’, with another planned for Cambridge.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t still practical, policy and regulatory barriers to repairing and sharing. Covid-19 lockdown restrictions made sharing and repairing nigh on impossible unless providers offered postal services. The Government is yet to reduce VAT on repairs, which has been much recommended as a way to stop people from defaulting to new purchases. While there is now a ‘right to repair’ in the UK, it doesn’t cover goods made pre-2021 and excludes many common items, including phones and laptops.

Policy, business and consumers will all need to move in tandem to get the economy circular enough, rapidly enough, for climate commitments to be met. Shrewsbury summarises: “We’re at a pivotal point. We’re almost having to reject traditional macro-economic theory based on consumerism. That’s the point; the circular economy isn’t just a ‘thing’ that can be added on – it’s the way that the economy will need to work going forward.”

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