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Harnessing the Power of the Circular Economy for Africa's Energy Transition

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By Roberto Vigotti

· 3 min read

As the conversation on climate change continues to gain traction, circular economy is becoming more and more popular. Our current production and consumption model is linear, meaning we extract resources from the Earth, use them to make products or services, and then throw them away.
Circular economy seeks to disrupt the take-make-dispose system by preventing waste from being made in the first place, and ensuring that elements that would otherwise be disposed of are recycled or reused in production, utilisation and disposal.
The connection between renewables and the circular economy is visible at the beginning of the energy value chain, including the extraction of resources. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a zero carbon future by 2040 will lead to a 20-40 times bigger demand for essential materials like cobalt, and lithium. Mining these materials is labour and resource-intensive, and has an undeniable environmental impact. Circular economy principles, such as recycling and reusing, would make it possible to recover 60 million tonnes of the mentioned materials, and make the deployment of renewable energy infrastructures more effective and less damaging. However, the contribution of circular economy doesn't stop here: as a matter of fact, it can also be an accelerator for other crucial processes: It can create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and drive innovation, while also helping to ensure energy security, reducing dependence on importations, and providing a more equitable distribution of resources.
Circularity principles and renewable energy not only can help to overcome the wasteful practices associated with this transformation, but also create new entrepreneurial opportunities. In alliance, they can boost African local development: solar panels can be utilized to protect certain plants from the sunrays, used car batteries can be reconfigured to act as stationary energy storage to bolster local networks, and responsibly managed e-waste collection can equip the renewable energy market with low-cost supplies, simultaneously creating job openings and limiting public health risks. At the forefront of this new approach are some African countries(Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal), which inaugurated conspicuous investment plans in circular economy, but also new cross-country programmes such as Switch Africa Green, promoted by Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius and Burkina Faso.
The time to act is now: Africa is on the brink of a monumental energy transition, which can only benefit from circular economy models, and vice versa: their interlinkages appear clearer by the day and they must be stimulated with appropriate measures: tax exemptions, national regulations, public/private partnerships, etc. These efforts will contribute to achieving full sustainability, while minimising environmental impact and generating numerous positive externalities, creating a brighter and more sustainable future for the continent.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
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About the author

Roberto Vigotti is the Secretary General of RES4Africa Foundation, a European think tank gathering 34 stakeholders from the clean energy value chain to accelerate Africa’s RE transition. Previously, he spent 35 years in Enel Power R&D Division and served for 12 years as the chair of the Renewable Working Party of the IEA

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