What role can circular economy play in delivering the Paris Agreement?

One message that resounded at the COP23 Bonn Zone was the role circular economy can play in delivering ambitious climate action. Charlotte Janssens presents insights on the potential of linking circular economy and climate change action.


A global perspective on circular economy

Circular economy strategies are on the rise. Many countries are implementing policies that facilitate the transition from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ model to a circular ‘reduce-reuse-repair-remanufacture-recycle’ one. Circular economy can be defined as a restorative and regenerative model that keeps materials, resources and components as long as possible in the system to maintain their highest value. This trend is visible in Europe, where the European Commission adopted an EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy resulting in ongoing negotiations for the revision of waste legislation as well as the expected delivery of the Plastics Strategy and a Monitoring Framework for the Circular Economy in the coming weeks.

Circular economy is, however, not just a narrative for the developed world.

Circular economy principles are already widespread in developing countries. As noted by Ibrahim Thiaw, Deputy Director for the UN Environment Programme at the World Circular Economy Forum in June 2017: “Developing countries are circular economy experts. For instance, shoes are repaired three or four times. Repairing is part of the DNA of developing countries”. These practices are often applied out of necessity or survival, but can bring opportunities for innovation and development too. Developing countries have much to gain from extending circular activities more systematically throughout their economies.

The management of both imported and domestically produced waste has major adverse health, economic and environmental impacts in developing countries. In 2016, Europe and North America exported respectively $1.78 and $1.02 billion worth of scrap plastics, including plastic bags and fast food containers. The top importers of scrap plastics are China and Hong Kong [1]. Similarly, the import of e-waste from various regions in the world poses a significant problem in Ghana and Nigeria leading to environmental damage and the health of informal and unprotected recyclers [2] . Over-extraction of resources leading to a loss of environmental quality and degradation of ecosystems is another issue. A recent IEEP event looked at the role of the circular economy in the context of development and the SDGs in more detail.


Making the circular economy deliver ambitious climate action

Limiting global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” [3] is one of our greatest challenges. The recently published UNEP Emission Gap Report highlights that urgent action is needed to increase ambition if we are to hit this target. Current policy pledges by countries are not yet sufficient to reach this goal – the remaining gap to stay within 2°C limit is 11 to 13.5 billion tons of CO2 – and some argue that circular economy measures can contribute to bridge this gap.

There is clearly a momentum for linking circular economy with the climate change agenda. At COP23 in Bonn, various side events took place discussing the link between circular economy and climate action. The prevailing message brought forward during these events is that circular economy could play a significant role in achieving the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. It is estimated that circular economy measures could reduce 33% of the CO2 emissions embedded in products [4] and could close halve of the current emission gap [5].

A report by Circle Economy and Ecofys indicates that the most important contribution from circular economy measures to climate action is (both energetic and material) resource efficiency, which will bring emission reductions over the whole value chain across different sectors. Opportunities to reduce emissions include the agricultural sector limiting food loss and industrial sectors favouring remanufacturing products before producing new ones. In general, of all emissions worldwide, half are linked to materials. Recycling and reuse of materials reduces the GHG emissions related to the production of these materials, and for most materials recycling delivers between 40 – 80% GHG emissions and energy use savings [5]. Recycling aluminium demands even 90% less energy than the production of aluminium from raw materials [6].

New business models, such as those that promote service or access before ownership, also provide examples of circular economy thinking that can cut carbon emissions. Car sharing, for instance, can reduce vehicle kilometres travelled and car ownership, leading to significant emission reductions [5]. For example, it is estimated that in Germany an expansion of both car sharing and public transport can lead to CO2 emission savings of almost 6 million tonnes per year [7].

Conversely, climate change actions can also contribute to the sustainability of activities that are considered to be circular, for example by promoting a greater share of renewables in the energy mix.

During the COP23 side events various countries including Laos, China, India and Kenya, took the opportunity to showcase circular economy projects that enhance climate change action.

China is making efforts to move towards a low-carbon industrial sector through the development of low carbon industrial parks. Their experiences show that introducing circular economy principles into these parks lead to greater CO2 emission reductions. The Suzhou industrial park in the east of China is, for example, heated with the use of hot water that is produced as a side stream in a sludge drying plant in the park [8].

Kenya has included solid waste management as one of its mitigation sectors in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), i.e. its national action plan to achieving its commitments under the Paris Agreement. They aim to improve waste collection and recycling in urban areas. In Nairobi it is estimated that this action plan will increase the recycling rate from 3% to 25%, leading to savings of more than 800000 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions over a period of 15 years and to sustainable development co-benefits (e.g. job creation) [9].


Way forward

A report by Circle Economy and the European Climate Foundation looked at developments in different European Member States and the way forward in linking circular economy and climate policy. The report shows that climate mitigation and circular economy can be mutually reinforcing, but calls for a better integration between these policy fields.

Furthermore, although high on national agendas, circular economy has not yet risen to the international level. This is important because national/regional circular economy policies will have spill over effects with the potential to impact trade linkages, barriers, standards and employment. It is clear that, in order to reach its full potential, circular economy needs to be approached in a holistic manner by taking into account its contribution to reaching the goals established under the Paris Agreement.



[1] OEC (2017) Scrap Plastic https://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/hs92/3915/#Exporters [accessed 27/11/2017].

[2] UNU-IAS (2014) The Global E-waste monitor http://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf [accessed 27/11/2017].

[3] UNFCCC (2015) Adoption of the Paris Agreement.

[4] Isabelle Durant, UNCTAD’s Deputy Secretary-General at COP23 side event ‘Promoting ambitious climate action through circular economy strategies’ on 15/11/2017.

[5] Circle Economy & Ecofys (2016) Implementing Circular Economy globally makes Paris target achievable Avaiable at: https://www.ecofys.com/en/publications/circular-economy-white-paper-ecofys-circle-economy/ [accessed 24/11/2017].

[6] The aluminium association (2017) http://www.aluminum.org/sustainability/aluminum-recycling [accessed 27/11/2017].

[7] Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz, Bau and Reaktorsicherheit (2015) Nutzen statt Besitzen: Neue Ansätze für eine Collaborative Economy Available at: http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/378/publikationen/uib_03_2015_nutzen_statt_besitzen_0.pdf [accessed 27/11/2017].

[8] Yu Xiang, Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at COP23 side event ‘Promoting ambitious climate action through circular economy strategies’ on 15/11/2017.

[9] Pacifica F. Achieng Ogola, Director Climate Change for the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya at COP23 side event ‘Promoting ambitious climate action through circular economy strategies’ on 15/11/2017.