The path to a globally just circular economy

The circular economy is an approach for a sustainable economy and a good way of life, as well as an actionable response to the triple planetary crisis – global warming, loss of biodiversity and pollution – and not least a solution to an increasingly uncertain supply of raw materials. How could it be implemented on a global scale?

Illustration zeigt Situationen in einem Kreis angeordnet, die zirkuläres Wirtschaften veranschaulichen sollen

Circular economy means making circularity principles the norm in all areas of life and business. These principles are described by the ten-rung R ladder. Refuse, Rethink and Reduce form the top rungs of the ladder; in its middle are various methods of closing the loop in the use phase of products (Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose) and at the bottom is Recycling as the penultimate stage before the recovery of energy (Recover). The ground on which the ladder stands marks the boundary to the linear economy which we primarily follow at the moment. The linear economy is characterized by high consumption of resources in the sense of a depletive use of raw materials: They are disposed of as waste, occur in such small quantities in various products or are so finely dispersed in the environment, e.g. in the form of emissions, that they cannot be recovered.

What might a circular world economy look like that meets the high expectations of living and doing business in a globally equitable manner and within planetary boundaries? An undifferentiated global application of the 10R principles would not be enough to achieve it; additional conditions, action targets and, undoubtedly, contributions from other policy areas (including energy, climate, nature conservation, environmental protection, trade) would be necessary.

Three conditions are essential:

  • a focus not only on products and their life cycle, but also on the material flows of the entire economy in order to set the right priorities;

  • the establishment of an impact relationship, i.e. evaluating the success of any measures based on their impact on the protection of the climate, biodiversity and the environment as well as on the raw material supply – the circular economy is not an end in itself;

  • ensuring social justice nationally and globally, through fundamental reforms of the world trade and monetary systems, among other things.

The principles and conditions described can be universalized; the following action goals must be adapted regionally to income levels, economic structures and individual development paths toward achieving the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

– The world’s poorest countries operate within planetary the boundaries due to poverty. They must develop their economic systems to meet basic needs and ultimately provide everyone with the possibility of living a good life within the planetary boundaries. This requires additional quantities of material, including construction minerals. Since the anthropogenic material stock (the material bound in products, infrastructure, buildings and landfills/dumps) of these countries is still very small but growing strongly, the required materials are largely taken from nature. These economies can nonetheless be circular by fundamentally taking circularity principles into account in the extraction of primary raw materials and in the further development of their economic system in order to avoid structurally exceeding a sustainable level of resource consumption.

– Growing countries have only just exceeded the planetary boundaries or are about to do so. They make up a large portion of the world’s population, and the rapidly growing group of global middle-class consumers is a major driver of resource demand and emissions worldwide. They continue to grow in a circular fashion to meet societal needs at globally equitable levels of resource consumption. They need structural materials (e.g. steel) and increasingly functional materials (technology metals) in order to further develop their industrial society and to leave the linear development paths they have taken in the direction of circularity.

– The needs in saturated countries are, on average, met – by means of an excessive consumption of resources. Circularity is the key to substantially reducing this consumption to a level that can be generalized globally. This not only means more circularity of products and materials, but above all less linearity (by not burning fossil raw materials, for instance). This will require predominantly functional materials – and more sustainable lifestyles.

Prof. Dirk Messner, President of Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA), teaches political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen and is Distinguished External Fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis / IIASA, Vienna.

Dr. Alexander Janz heads the «Sustainable Products and Sustainable Consumption, Circular Economy» department at the Federal Environment Agency.

Jan Kosmol works as a scientific policy advisor at the Federal Environment Agency in the «Resource Conservation, Material Cycles, Mineral and Metal Industry» section.

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