5 circular economy strategies to stay below 1.5°C warming

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The World Meteorological Organization has reported that global temperatures are predicted to rise 3-5 degrees Celsius by 2100. This far surpasses the maximum limit of a 2°C rise in temperature that absolutely must be avoided in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, such as devastating droughts, severe storms, uncontrollable fires, rising sea levels, and the loss of many plant and animal species. In 2015, 174 countries came together to sign the Paris Agreement, pledging to strive to limit the rise to 2°C – nonetheless, the mechanisms currently in place by these countries are simply not enough to meet this target. Circular economy strategies, however, are hardly included in these countries’ plans, yet show huge potential for keeping the global temperature below the limit.

While 2°C is the absolute maximum temperature rise the planet could handle before being plunged into climate chaos, limiting the rise to 1.5°C would do much more to protect the earth from the forces of climate change. This, coupled with the fact that we have until 2030 to make a change before we pass the point of no return, puts an even greater pressure on these countries to step up their climate policy and take actions that make a real difference.

It is estimated that in order to reach this 1.5°C target, by 2030 global CO2 emissions need to decrease an additional 15 billion tonnes per year than is already being reduced. But even if all the current climate policies are realized successfully, the world would only see an additional reduction of 11-13 billion tonnes of emissions, which is 2-4 billion tonnes short of what is needed to meet our temperature goal.

“We must move beyond incremental improvements and reimagine the ways we generate and deliver goods and services.’ – The Guardian

So what can we do? Try as they might, current efforts are simply not enough. What we need is something that brings us beyond making incremental changes and completely redefines our relation to raw materials.

How about redesigning our supply chains to incorporate more materials that already exist within our economy? Or how about designing our products with their end-of-life in mind, building them in such a way that makes it easy for them and their parts to be made useful again?

These are all circular economy strategies, which, if implemented on a wide scale, have the potential to close half of the gap between where we are now and where we should be in terms of emission reduction. It is estimated that of all the greenhouse gasses emitted globally, around 50% of them are related to materials. Circular economy strategies – such as the ones mentioned above – reduce the use of virgin materials, which in turn reduces energy demand requirements. Circular economy strategies are predicted to be able to reduce these material-related emissions by 20-30%, thereby circumventing an additional 1-2 billion tonnes of emissions per year.

An infographic showing that circular economy strategies can bridge half of the emissions gap
Circular economy strategies can bridge half of the emissions gap, in order to keep our planet below 1.5°C . Source: Circle Economy/Ecofys

That’s a pretty bold prediction. How will the circular economy do this?

A 2016 report by Circle Economy and Ecofys (now Navigant) outlines five circular economy strategies that can help us manage our materials better, towards a cooler future.

1. Recovery and Reuse

This strategy recovers and reuses products, materials, wastes, and by-products that would otherwise be discarded. Underlined by the circular principle of using waste as a resource, this strategy works towards letting as little waste as possible from dropping out of our system by recovering it for other uses.

A simple example of this is the bottle return scheme put in place by many European supermarkets, which recovers bottles back from consumers to be treated or recycled for reuse.  But it can get much more complex than this: industrial symbiosis parks, such as Kalundborg Symbiosis in Denmark, coordinate the flow of energy, water, and material between companies in the industrial park to such a degree that nearly all waste material generated within the park is processed as a raw material by another company on the complex.

A boy uses a bottle return machine in Germany. Source: The Guardian

By reusing the resources that are currently circulating in our economy, rather than disposing of them and extracting more, we are able to significantly reduce the amount of CO2 in the air that is related to the extraction and processing of new materials. Furthermore, this keeps these resources such as fossil fuels in the ground where they belong, allowing the earth to re-stabilize and recover from damages more effectively.

2. Lifetime Extension

Aside from recovering them once they are at their end-of-life, it is equally as important to design products and assets to last or be used for longer from the get-go. It’s wonderful for the environment if you recycle all 5 pairs of jeans you’ve owned once they’ve worn out – but it’s even better if the jeans you bought had been made to last so that you don’t have to buy more than 1 pair in the first place, thus saving on all the water, energy, materials, and pollutants required to make them.

Lifetime extension can be done by companies offering services of maintenance, upgrade, and repair, to encourage clients to not throw away their product once it has a defect but rather upgrade or repair it and continue on using it. Taking the product back from the consumer and remanufacturing it for resale is another way to extend the lifetime of a product.

3. Sharing and Service Models

One of the more radical strategies, sharing and service models offer products not as products but as services. These pay-per-use or leasing schemes maximise the utilization of the products and assets, in order to get the most value out of them for a long as possible and prevent them going to waste prematurely.

A great example of this is VIGGA, a baby clothes brand that leases sets of baby clothes to parents, rather than selling them. As babies grow incredibly quickly, their clothing gets outgrown after only a few months. This is a problem not only for the parents, who quickly waste their time and money on purchasing baby clothes, but is also a problem for the environment when these clothes are discarded. Instead, through VIGGA’s sharing model, parents can rent the baby clothes they need and then send them back to VIGGA in exchange for new pairs once the old ones have been outgrown.

Used baby clothes ready for their new owner. Source: VIGGA
4. Circular Design

In order for products to last, or to be reusable, or to be easily repairable, it all starts with their design. Products should be designed to have as little carbon footprint and to require as few resources as possible, not only during production but throughout its entire life cycle. Designing for modularity, like phone company Fairphone does, reduces e-waste as it enables their phones to be taken apart and repaired easily, rather than simply discarded and replaced when broken.

5. Digital Platforms

In this digital age we are in, why shouldn’t our products go digital too? Digital platforms reduce the need for physical products by replacing them with online equivalents. It’s an old example, but the transition from CDs to digital .mp3 files (and now digital platforms like Spotify) dematerialized music and significantly reduced the amount of physical materials needed for someone to listen to their favorite band.

All these strategies reduce both the amount of materials that need to be extracted from the earth and the amount of materials that go to waste and pollute our earth – either by extending their lifespan and making them last by one means or the other, or by eliminating the need for physical products in the first place. These strategies, if put into place by countries around the world, will bring about a significant reduction in the amount of CO2 pollution caused by materials, and will rapidly accelerate us on our path to keep our planet below 1.5°C warming.

We at MaterialTrader.com are working towards this circular future by being a platform that facilitates the recovery of materials for further use. You can join us on path towards this future by listing any materials you want to trade on our platform, or by starting a discussion in the comments about any ideas you may have to slow global warming or push forward the circular economy – or both!

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