What would it look like, a zero-waste economy?
Among the many things competing for our attention at the dawn of the new decade was a little noticed fact coming out of Davos: our global economy had reached a burn rate of 100 billion tons/year of natural resources.
Numbers like this are hard to digest - it’s like 450 Eiffel Towers every minute (4,5 million tons per minute), or 40 kg of materials per person per day. Not that it’s anywhere near equitable enough to justify mentioning a per capita average - in Bangladesh it’s around 4 kg per person per day, whereas in Singapore it’s closer to 220 kg.
Mr. Steven Stone - Chief, Resources and Markets Branch/UN Environment
We could be forgiven for overlooking the importance of this 100 billion ton milestone - while the global risk report released by WEF notched up the five top risks as being environmental, this one went by unnoticed. But step back and look at the bigger picture, and you see that it is our voracious appetite for natural resources and the growing ability to metabolize them that underlies most if not all the five risks. And certainly, at the root of the climate and nature challenge, lies the rate at which our economies metabolize resources as we produce and consume, to lift incomes and quality of life.
The science is clear on this. Earlier in 2019, the International Resources Panel launched its Global Resource Outlook, which estimated the climate impact of resource extraction to be around one third of total and of impacts on nature and biodiversity, a whopping 91% come from resource extraction, including conventional agriculture.
So, if we want to make our economies more circular and if we want to make 2020 a super year for nature, a good way to start would be to look at the footprints of how we produce and consume.
Many tools exist to help us with this. Also launched in 2019 at the last UN Environment Assembly, the Hot Spot Analysis tool brings together 25 years of data from 183 countries on the carbon, water, nature profiles and footprints of their economies. And as with any habit or addiction, the first step to changing course is to recognize that a pattern exists.
7 steps to circularity
Step 1 - Know and measure your footprint. And see how circular your economy really is!
The other steps follow pretty closely and logically and they are nothing new for those who focus on the economy as a driver of sustainability (or unsustainability, as the case may be):
Step 2 - Build in circularity at design and production stage. Promote policies which support design for reuse and/or recyclability (increased recyclable and recycled material content), as well as more broadly design innovation for circularity. This is where rethinking everything comes into play: What kinds of products and services would be needed for a zero-waste economy?
Promote industry standards for circularity. Introduce chemicals regulations to keep the chemicals of concerns away or easy-to-separate from recycled streams and to ensure there is no damage to health and the environment; Develop and engage private sector in the implementation of end of life policies (such as Extended Producers Responsibility); Include incentives for circular economy applications in nascent growth sectors, particularly those related to technology and innovation.
Step 3 - Align prices for circularity and shift demand. Market prices often hide true costs of products and services in the economy; and reinforce short term investment and consumer behavior. Government, retailers, brand-owners and consumers all play key roles in creating and reinforcing resource efficiency in consumption and production. And while markets are slow to reflect scarcities and risks in pricing, we need now more than ever market instruments that are fit for purpose and reflect full-cost pricing. Policy options include: Gradually remove price distortions for food, fuel, and clothing with large externalities/footprints.
Report progress using new, universally adopted methodology led by UNEP on fossil fuel subsidy reform; Implement “polluter pays” while avoiding abrupt price movements. Regulate or tax consumer products with high associated plastic losses (responsible for microplastics); Promote economic incentives to increase the use of secondary materials over primary materials. These can include import duties on raw materials and polymers; Legislate and require reliable sustainability information to consumers; increase consumer awareness through behavioral economics and “nudging”.
Step 4 - Spend and invest wisely. Governments represent some of the largest global consumers and investors, reaching 20 - 50% of GDP and their expenditure sends important market signals to suppliers. Sustainable public procurement is one area where Government expenditure can align and reshape markets with relatively friction and social capital costs. Policy actions include: Create legislation for sustainable public procurement and adopt guidelines to enhance circularity in public purchasing; Create commissions for sustainable infrastructure, focusing on investment gaps and creating space for public-private initiatives, including Step 5 - Think beyond national borders. Align trade and trade-related policies with objectives of circularity and sustainable development for increased revenues, growth and job creation; Promote trade agreements and partnerships that increase resilience and sustainability; Create export opportunities and market access for green products and technologies.
Step 6 - Invest in education and training. Circular and green economies require new skill sets, revolving around renewables and energy efficiency, water saving and recycling, secondary materials and recycling, remanufacturing and retooling among others. They require a complete rethink of how chemicals are deployed and recovered across their life-cycle. Policy options include: Strengthen and reform vocational and technical training programs at national level to reskill populations and train for tomorrow’s green collar jobs; Reform and adapt university curricula to include circularity and resource efficiency in business, banking, MBAs, engineering and natural sciences; build capacity to tackle tomorrow’s sustainability challenges; Remember that not all information comes from education, a lot of it comes from entertainment. Engage media and entertainment sectors to normalize sustainable behaviors and provide information in an entertaining way; Engage faith-based communities to bring contemporary environment issues into their communities.
Step 7 - Be inclusive. To avoid social upheaval and associated costs, each country must plan for a “just transition,” which involves youth, business, faith, civil society. Policy options include: Create national roundtables on just transition, involving labor, business, policy and youth; Introduce social protection and flanking measures to ensure social floors and access to education, health and basic needs - including pollution-free air and water; Protect workers in industries that are traditionally influential in policy making and that may be affected by the transition to a circular economy. Protect people, not jobs.
7 steps to circularity. Because in the beginning, nature was entirely circular - waste did not exist. And so nature has a lot to teach us as we look for and develop economies that are circular, green and inclusive.
Imagine an economy without waste. What would it look like? And what would we need to do to get there? But here’s a bonus step. The 8th step is to rethink about what we are getting out of removing 100 billion tons of stuff from nature every year. Measuring wellbeing of society beyond GDP can unlock less material intensive views of prosperity and foster aspirational paradigms around wellbeing, work-life balance and quality of life in harmony with nature. Countries like Bhutan, Finland, Japan and Thailand are embracing development paths that go beyond eternal growth.
The team at UN Environment Program has worked in the space of sustainable living, consumption and production for many years, and brought together this rich expertise in one easy-to-access place: The UNEP Circularity Hub. It shows through living examples how nature can inspire design, industrial value addition and consumer loops to reduce material waste and retain value. Its deep dives into the second step to circularity - rethinking the productive base of our economy, so that it meets our needs without accumulating risks or liabilities. They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And re-imagining the basis of our economy is the very first step.
Hồng Nhung (UNEP source)
(Nguồn: Bài đăng trên Tạp chí Môi trường số Chuyên đề Tiếng Anh I/2020)