The IPCC report on the consequences of exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming has rippled out across the world, prompting now-familiar responses ranging from dire warnings of apocalypse, to urgent calls to action, to outright denial of scientific facts.
“You’re looking at an ever greater loss of biodiversity, worsening storms, ever-more people thrust into poverty, and relentlessly shrinking yields for essential crops like rice and maize and wheat,” read Wired’stake on the report findings.
With as few as 12 years left until the world is projected to exceed 1.5 degrees of warming – which will have serious consequences in itself – before ramping up towards the vastly more destabilizing scenario of 2 degrees and beyond, the IPCC’s experts are urging an immediate and complete rework of how our global economy functions. These calls for a transition come at a time when nationalistic movements, often hostile to climate science, are rising to power around the world on platforms of unilateral self-interest over international cooperation, and economic growth over minimizing environmental impacts. Climate change is likely to only worsen the moribund economic circumstances of regions where such movements are growing in stature.
To address the climate crisis at the required speed without drastically impacting current standards of living, the circular economy could be key. A circular economy – which at a basic level is a system that continuously cycles materials at high value – can not only head off the more serious consequences of climate change, but improve human quality of life and regional economic systems at the same time. As one example, a study from the Club of Rome found that a set of circular economy policies could reduce Sweden’s carbon emissions by almost 70% and cut unemployment by a third.
A circular economy can help tackle climate change by:
- Capturing carbon emissions to use in the manufacture of new products, such as the Taiwanese company using microalgae to produce biofuel from the emissions of a cement plant
- Mandating that products are built to last, such as the EU requirement that vacuum cleaners work for a minimum of 500 hours, reducing carbon emissions from the manufacture and transport of new products
- Designing products for easy disassembly and recycling, such as this tyre purposely designed to be recycled into footwear outsoles, averting the carbon intensive-process of extracting more raw materials
- Reducing fossil fuel consumption by generating alternative forms of energy out of waste products, for example this Brazilian facility that converts sewage sludge into biogas
- Integrating local micro-grids that complement intermittent wind and solar power with energy generated from the waste heat of household water systems, such as in our case study of a Dutch ecovillage
- Replacing emission-intensive materials with low-carbon renewable alternatives, such as bamboo pipes for water systems in China that minimize the need for steel, cement and plastic
- Rolling out solar panels and wind turbines built according to circular principles, which we calculated is important to guarantee sufficient rare metal supply to undertake the energy transition
These are just some of the ways that a circular economy can immediately help reduce carbon emissions while boosting a new form of economic development. These changes can be introduced at scale in the current system as the first steps towards a truly circular economy, which we see having far more profound benefits for biodiversity, human health, and culture.