The circular economy: towards net zero

Hand holding a transparent globe with nature reflections inside it

How can the circular economy support the transition towards net zero?

The pathway to achieving zero emissions by 2050 is complex and confusing. With numerous terms to navigate including climate targets, net zero, carbon neutral and zero waste, I am often asked where the circular economy fits in.

To date, efforts to tackle the climate crisis have focused on the transition to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency. This, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only tells us half of the story as these measures only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from the production of the products that surround our daily lives including:

  • cars
  • clothes
  • food
  • electronics.

Innovation and entrepreneurship

This is where the circular economy, a systems framework based on innovation and entrepreneurship, can make a transformational difference. Radically changing the way that we make, buy, use and reuse products has a critical role to play in achieving a more prosperous, resilient and ‘nicer’ future for all.

In contrast to the ‘sustainability’ agenda, commonly defined by terms including reduce, efficiency and dematerialisation, the language of circularity includes terms such as value, resource productivity and regeneration. The concept is exciting, the examples inspirational and everyone, independent of background, discipline, sector or continent, can appreciate the role that they have to play in achieving a systems transition.

Three core principles

The circular economy can be distilled to three core principles:

  • eliminate waste and pollution
  • circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
  • regenerate natural capital.

These principles are easy to understand and present a compelling vision but what does this mean in practise?

Circular economy in action

Circular economy examples range from its application within national strategies and climate targets worldwide, through to its uptake by global organisations, start-ups and entrepreneurs. These all radically re-think our use and re-use of resources.

Research and innovation between academia and business plays a vital role in unlocking the knowledge and science required to accelerate towards a circular economy at scale.

Here I highlight some of the exciting research and innovation taking place between different companies, sectors and disciplines across the circular economy landscape.

Design and the built environment

The built environment uses almost half of the materials extracted globally every year. And, according to a report released by UN Environment Programme, it is estimated that by 2060 the equivalent of the city of Paris will be built each week across the world. The design, construction and use of buildings therefore has a major role to play if we are to meet climate targets.

Using commonly found exterior lightweight infill walls as a case study, the Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centre for Mineral Based Construction Materials aims to re-design exterior walls. Redesigned so that they can be deconstructed and re-used again and again.

Adopting circular economy principles within the built environment through the re-design and re-use of building materials and minerals, via methods such as this, could see a 38% reduction in C02e by 2050. This is due to reduced demand for new:

  • steel
  • aluminium
  • cement
  • plastic.

Complex supply chains and the NHS

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has the largest supply chain in Europe. It:

  • accounts for 10% of UK GDP
  • employs £1.4 million employees
  • represents 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.

The NHS net zero strategy has set targets to reduce its 2036 footprint by 80% relative to 2018. To achieve this will require a cross-value chain approach to target scope three emissions, a significant opportunity for adopting a circular economy mindset.

To bring about change in such a complex system, the National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Hub applied the principles of a circular economy to three illustrative case studies featuring medical technologies:

  • telehealth
  • digital pathology
  • low-helium MRI scanners.

Research identified that well-designed circular economy approaches can power true systems change, unlocking economic savings, improving patient outcomes, access to health and reducing carbon emissions. The same principles, applied within this study (PDF, 8.9MB) can be replicated across everything else that the NHS procures from medicines and chemicals to construction and catering.

Circular business models and mobility

Road travel accounts for 75% of global emissions from the transport sector. The move to hybrid and electric vehicles will reduce emissions from the use phase of vehicles over the next 5 to 10 years. But the materials, design, manufacture and re-use of vehicles will remain a priority if we are to meet net zero targets.

Top image:  Credit: stock_colors, iStock, Getty Images Plus, Getty Images

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