The “Circularity Gap” and Strategies to Close It
Only nine percent of the global economy is circular. To promote the transition from a “depletive” to a “regenerative” use of resources, we need to reduce the input of virgin materials, improve the use of existing resources and limit the output of harmful waste.
The circular economy is a business opportunity that combines the transition from a linear economy with a reduction in our carbon footprint. The benefits of a circular economy go beyond mitigation action alone, as it aims to make vital services like mobility, shelter and nutrition available to more people at lower cost in financial, environmental and social terms. By closing material cycles, extending the responsibility of producers beyond the point of sale, adjusting our tax systems and adjusting the way we identify greenhouse gas mitigation options, the circular economy can target emissions at their root causes. As such, it offers a promising pathway to a low-carbon society, a pathway that has enabled progress on a broad range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This article explains how global resource use is tied to greenhouse gas emissions. It provides a preview of the second Global Circularity Gap report, which will be published in January 2019. The second edition of the Global Circularity Gap report will go into more depth on the mass-value-carbon nexus, by connecting these three dimensions to identify global leverage points for a transition to a circular economy. From there it goes into more detail about circular economy opportunities in the built environment, capital goods and global efforts to mitigate climate change.
The world is 9.1 percent circular
Our world economy is only 9.1 percent circular, leaving a massive “Circularity Gap.” This alarming statistic is the main output of this first Circularity Gap Report, which launched a metric for the circular state of the planet.
The consequences of a mostly linear economy
Only nine percent of all materials in use are recovered and reused (figure 1). The remainder is added to long-term stock in buildings and infrastructure (21.5 billion tons) or dispersed. The disposal of an annual 62.9 billion tons creates gross environmental consequences like climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, disrupted nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, soil degradation and freshwater overexploitation.
As such, the linear, take-make-waste economic model prevents progress on a range of SDGs. Several SDGs are related to the production of waste or excessive use of natural resources, whether they involve air quality in cities, food waste, access to clean water, the health consequences of exposure to hazardous emissions, or whether they relate to the wider goals like living in harmony with nature, or global resource efficiency in consumption and production.
In a circular economy the amount of extracted resources, and the amount of materials dispersed and emitted should be minimized. There are two underlying principles to achieve this (figure 1):
1 | The utilization of stocks is optimized so that current stocks-in-use such as buildings and machinery are used to their full potential, limiting the stocks which are temporarily not in use (hibernating) or mobilizing materials to re-enter the economy (urban mining);
2 | Material cycling for reuse is optimized, a position that requires new product design, wide-scale adoption of best available technologies and improved collection infrastructure for the processing of resources to optimize reuse.