Overlooking emissions embodied in materials threatens any chance of reaching the 1.5-degrees target
Let me paint a picture for you. Under a media frenzy, world leaders come together to grace famed stages and discuss the biggest challenge of our time: climate breakdown. They dominate newspaper headlines, promising dreams of net-zero and tales of green growth. But in the background, extractive industries continue drilling, fracking and mining. Materials that are increasingly scarce or downright polluting flow into our economy—seemingly as if there is no climate crisis. Profits are made, ecological exhaustion continues.
In fact, in the time elapsed—six years—between the key climate conferences of COP21 in Paris 2015, and COP26 in Glasgow 2021, half a trillion tonnes of virgin materials were extracted. These are minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass to fulfil society’s needs—and many of its wants. This is according to the latest Circularity Gap Report, launched in January 2022 by Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based impact organisation.
The dichotomy of this situation amplifies the core message of the Circularity Gap Report series, which annually reports on the circular state of the world. This is that to mitigate the impacts of climate breakdown, we need to shift toward a system that is regenerative and circular in nature, and that applies a systems approach. We cannot tackle the integrated issue of climate breakdown silo by silo, country by country, or pledge by pledge.
There is no more time for false promises: COP26 was branded a ‘fragile win’ by Alok Sharma, it became a playground for polluters and their lobbyists. Much of the climate community lamented the watered-down results. And now sights are on COP27: it needs to deliver climate pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions) that are sincere and well thought out: including on how they will be funded and which jobs and skills are needed to make them a reality. As the latest IPCC report has made clear: we have to act now, or we face masses of human and planetary suffering. And as both the IPCC and the Circularity Gap Report posit: action must include conversations around consumption rates, resource use and systemic change—not only a tech-led clean energy transition.
A 50-year hypothesis—and warning—proven right
It’s been five years since our Circularity Gap Report first calculated the circular state of the world. In this short time, the world has gone from 9.1% circular in 2018 to 8.6% in 2020 and annual global resource use has surpassed 100 billion tonnes. Inequalities have also widened across and within countries and it is now over 1.1-degree warmer than in pre-industrial times.
But this alarm bell has sounded for years already. In fact, the Club of Rome’s landmark book Limits to Growth, which predicted how rapid economic growth and natural resource exploitation would lead to the ‘collapse of civilisation’ by 2040, was published exactly fifty years ago. New research shows that we appear to be, unfortunately, right on schedule. A handful of the study’s ‘worst-case scenarios’ based on food production and pollution, among others, have accurately forecasted our real-world situation. And what a shame, as the study never intended to make predictions—it rather wanted to inspire the world to follow safe and sustainable avenues. Much of the world has repeatedly snoozed the alarm.
In the years since the Limits to Growth predictions, we have seen some progress on the sustainability or ‘green’ front with a medley of environmental victories. However, we cannot downplay our defeats. In 2015, nearly all countries pledged to limit the average global temperature rise this century to well below 2-degrees, and ideally 1.5-degrees, in an effort to prevent the worst impacts of climate breakdown, provide support for lower-income nations and be transparent in reporting on action. Yet we remain far from reaching this goal, partly because natural resource exploitation has continued to be maximised in pursuit of continued growth: the antithesis of the Club of Rome’s advice.
Climate mitigation efforts to keep us on track to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5-degrees of warming largely do not address natural resource exploitation any further than phasing out fossil fuel use. The overwhelming focus on the clean energy transition as the saving grace of our warming planet has resulted in efforts centred solely on energy sources in industries with high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: namely electricity, heat, construction, transportation and manufacturing. Although vital, is this alone enough to stem climate breakdown? The answer here is no.
70% of global emissions are tied to material use and handling
As consumption has risen—fueled by the extraction and use of resources—so have global greenhouse gas emissions. The Circularity Gap Report 2021 reported that of the 59.1 billion tonnes of annual total global emissions, 70% are tied to the lifetimes of materials: extraction, processing, use and disposal. As materials flow through the global economy and supply chain, energy carriers gradually become embodied in finished goods and services. So, to truly reduce the level of GHG emissions in our atmosphere, we must look at our use and disposal of resources: all of our stuff.
This is where the circular economy comes in. The circular economy is a model full of potential to cut resource use and extraction and stem global emissions. If managed well, it can also create more equitable societies. To fully understand the breadth of circular economy strategies that can be applied across sectors and industries to cut resource use and emissions, we are guided by four key pillars for material flow management: narrow, slow, regenerate and cycle. And as three-quarters of global GHGs are produced by providing for society's need for housing, nutrition and mobility, this article will focus on examples from these sectors.
Narrowing global material flows: using fewer resources
Circular strategies can reduce the overall level of materials flowing into an economy by increasing material efficiency—in other words, getting more (or the same) from fewer materials. This means the emissions embodied in materials and end-products will be lowered. This is especially true if priority is given to the flows with the highest embodied emissions—such as cement clinker production.
Importantly, the overall level of material consumption must also be reduced to narrow flows: if the common denominator (the consumption of virgin materials) keeps growing, our advances in material efficiency and cycling can never keep up. The processes still entail resource extraction.
In practice, this will mean reducing material consumptions across needs. This entails encouraging the use of sharing and rental models over private ownership, for example, and prioritising material lightweighting where possible as well as multifunctional products and buildings. To make housing more circular, for example, we must ultimately call for fewer—but better—new buildings to be built and make using them for multiple purposes the norm—especially in higher-income countries where we have masses of stock already built up.
When it comes to cutting the resource and emissions intensity by narrowing flows for Mobility, the simplest avenue is to reduce travel. Embracing digitisation in business and across sectors will serve to reduce the material inputs needed for goods and even buildings—especially if work-from-home and telecommuting remain partly in place post-covid-19.
Slowing global material flows: using resources for longer
In extending the time that we can use materials to the best of their value with circular strategies, the emissions attached to material flows are spread out and reduced over time. By using materials for longer we will also reduce the need to extract virgin materials, also leading to energy savings.
In practice, we must make the most of what we already have: elongating the life of our goods and buildings. This will be paramount as the global population continues to swell and countries continually invest in new buildings and infrastructure to meet the variety of societal needs. Current estimates suggest that 255 billion square metres of buildings exist across the globe—a figure expected to almost double within the next four decades. This stock build-up is not inherently bad; many nations need to invest in infrastructure to ensure access to basic services.
The situation, nonetheless, necessitates that we slow flows: design with circularity in mind, maintain and reuse, and repair and refurbish buildings, roads and machinery. Modular design, for example, allows buildings to be easily adapted over time to suit changing needs. It carries the potential for deconstruction, relocation and reuse of elements (or even whole buildings). Underused and disused buildings should also be occupied—in a time of resource scarcity buildings should not be sitting empty. Only with these methods can we try to meet the global housing demand within our global stock limits.
Regenerate global material flows: using clean resources
Ultimately, fossil fuels only represent 15% of all materials that enter the global economy, but they are responsible for 65% of global emissions. By using regenerative resources—which is inherent in the circular economy—the emissions in fossil fuels and unsustainable biomass, toxins in many chemicals, are cut from the economy—and don’t seep into our ecosystems and bodies.
In practice, this means prioritising and mainstreaming regenerative material use, renewable energy and regenerative agriculture. We must consider how we grow, source, process and transport our food—and what type of foods we eat—and the massive impact this has on both global emissions and material use. As disposable incomes rise across the globe, the pressure to safeguard our earth’s natural carbon sinks—forests—from deforestation driven by the global appetite for meat, as well as moving toward more regenerative agricultural practices that allow us to bring our process more in line with nature, rises. Across the board, the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and other pollutants should be eliminated to the extent possible to maintain healthy, fertile soils and safeguard biodiversity. Implementing such a fully-fledged circular model of regenerative agriculture can result in animal husbandry being balanced with crop cultivation, allowing waste products to be cycled into inputs: manure becomes fertiliser and crop trimmings and waste become fodder.
Everyday choices for fresh, regional, local and seasonal options can also make a difference. If these options would dominate diets and menus, the need for hot-housing vegetables would drop—equating to a reduction in fuel inputs, plus fewer food miles and lower transportation impacts. Urban, organic and precision farming models would also eliminate harmful synthetic fertiliser use which allows nitrogen and phosphorus to seep into the soil.
Cycle flows: using resources again
Depending on the energy used and emissions released during the cycling process, this circular strategy has the potential to eliminate embodied emissions from inputs. Cycling, essentially, turns ‘waste’ into something usable. While ‘recycling’ is often incorrectly seen as the core principle of the circular economy, it actually ranks lowest in the waste hierarchy: only recycle if you can't first avoid something becoming waste in the first place by refusing, reducing or reusing.
In fulfilling the global population's need for nutrition, mobility and housing, it's inevitable that some waste will be created—even in a circular economy. And in our current linear system, waste levels are catastrophically high. In practice we must mainstream designing for recyclability (both technical and biological), designing for disassembly and recycling.
Consider food waste: while many people around the world suffer from food insecurity, roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—about 1.3 billion tonnes—gets lost or wasted. Of course, we need to mitigate this waste in the first place, but when that is not possible, food waste can also be used as fodder which can reduce farmers’ costs by up to 60%.
Design must consider goods' end-of-life destination. Automobile design, for example, must allow for metal and plastic components to be recycled, and for such components to include recycled materials in the first place. In transitioning away from fossil fuels, the global economy is building up masses of stock in the form of wind turbines, for example. These must be designed to first, be durable and repairable, and second, to be reusable and, finally, cyclable when they reach the end of their lives. In the UK, HS2 Ltd, the developer of a high-speed railway linking major UK cities, has given a new lease of life to decommissioned wind turbine blades, in place of using virgin steel. Meanwhile, batteries from end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), for example, are full of precious raw materials. Using these as an 'urban mine'—so that these valuable materials can be recycled—is becoming increasingly accessible as platforms to assist in making the data available to all have sprung up: ProSUM, for example, led by a number of EU and Swiss institutions.
2022: an unprecedented time for collaboration
Without a significant increase in action, climate targets such as 1.5-degrees will ‘wither on the vine,’ Sharma said at the World Sustainable Development Summit in February. The circular economy can help us reap the fruits of the 1.5-degree goal—but getting there will require radical collaboration over competition.
The globe stands at a crisis crossroads. As I write, war has broken out in Europe with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. An invasion driven by national self-interest (and a barbarian)—a far cry from collaboration. The latest IPCC report warns that one of the worst scenarios modelled is one where 'resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts' make global collaboration nearly impossible.
In light of the current events, calls to drop fossil fuels are growing louder. A move away from fossil fuels is a move towards more safety—for the planet and its people. Aside from their massive contribution to climate breakdown, they also make the global economy and energy security vulnerable to geopolitical shocks and crises, notes UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Many materials we extract from the earth drive similar conflicts.
By ensuring that everything is used at its highest value for as long as possible, the circular economy can reduce the need for finite virgin resources. And in ensuring that we use regenerative resources, the circular economy can eliminate fossil fuels. And as we know and the latest IPCC makes clear, there is no silver bullet for mitigating climate change, but there is a smoking gun: fossil fuels and overconsumption.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Laxmi Haigh is an environmental writer and the Lead Editor at Circle Economy. Laxmi Haigh is also a research professional with a Research Msc in Anthropology from the University of Utrectht.