The circular economy: a solution to climate change woes

A new, more sustainable economic model was presented at a conference in Taipei today

Attendees of the 2018 International Conference on Solutions for a Circular Economy

Attendees of the 2018 International Conference on Solutions for a Circular Economy (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — At the 2018 International Conference on Integrated and Innovative Solutions for a Circular Economy in Taipei today, several specialists offered their expertise on how we can move towards implementing a fully circular economy.

The term “circular economy” is relatively self-descriptive. A traditional (linear) economy follows a singular path from production through usage to disposal and has been the default market driver in the developed world for hundreds of years. A circular economy aims to create a cycle whereby used goods and materials are put back into production or usage, thereby slowing, closing and narrowing material and energy loops.

UK charity The Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides the most renowned definition of the term: “an industrial economy that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.”

According to a landmark UN report published earlier this month, we have only 12 years to change our behavior in order to limit a climate change catastrophe. 12 years is the estimated time it will take for global temperatures to rise by 1.5 C, above which Antarctic ice sheets will reach a tipping point and begin to cause “unstoppable multi-meter sea level rises”, drastically increasing coastal flooding risks and potentially subjecting millions to climate-related poverty.

While many reports remain pessimistic, some experts believe we are still not at a complete loss, and making drastic changes in our lifestyle and production habits now can prevent disaster. According to specialists at today’s international conference, fully adopting a circular economy is exactly the change we need to make.

The process of moving towards a sustainable future requires making changes on both a personal and global level.

Seoul University’s Professor Hyunook Kim detailed the immense efforts the Korean government has gone through to encourage its citizens to take up more sustainable recycling and waste disposal practices. Authorities have implemented strict regulations that include washing waste containers before recycling them, with transgressors fined up to US$300.

Of course, Taiwan has itself successfully introduced pragmatic responses to waste management problems over the past 20 years. But today, Professor Jiří Jaromír Klemeš of Brno University of Technology, Czech Republic, warned that currently, too much focus is put on recycling rather than reusing.

The circular economy: a solution to climate change woes
Professor Jiří Jaromír Klemeš at today's conference (Taiwan News image)

Recycling provides a solution but does not eradicate the root cause of waste. The academic reminded that recycling glass bottles rather than reusing them wastes an enormous amount of energy. Incinerators require huge energy inputs to function, and much of this currently comes from non-renewable sources.

People all over the world still need to undergo huge psychological and sociological changes, he further commented. Professor Klemeš laments that increasing GDP each year remains a central target in countries that already have enough to provide for their citizens. Higher GDPs encourage more wasteful consumption; more meat, bigger cars and bigger houses.

Individuals cannot be held entirely responsible for their consumption habits, though. The biggest driver of wasteful consumption is the capitalist market.

More must be done by national authorities to ensure industries are not encouraging negligent behavior. This includes everything from mitigating the absurd overpackaging of supermarket products to regulating the mass-production of electronics with no tangible way to dismantle, reuse or recycle their component parts.

Science and technology also have their roles to play in encouraging regenerative and restorative practices, Director of Argonne National Laboratory Dr. Norman D. Peterson expressed in his presentation.

In the U.S., 40% of total energy demands come from residential and commercial buildings. Peterson explained that buildings can be made “smarter” via integrating self-healing materials and cyber-physical intelligence systems with sensors to prevent inefficient equipment usage and energy waste. Such technology can even be retrofitted into existing buildings in a cost-effective manner.

Circular development projects must remember not to be exclusive, however. Patrick Schröder of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University (UK) insisted that discussions of circular development must include social and ethical concerns. Businesses need to place additional considerations on the needs of low and middle-income countries.

Labor automation, for example, can provide effective opportunities to reduce waste created by traditional manufacturing methods. But this transformation may also block development pathways in low and middle-income countries through “premature deindustrialization”.

When countries lose their manufacturing jobs before they become wealthy, workers can shift from highly productive industries to small-scale operations like shopkeeping in order to continue making a living. Governments and industries must work together to ensure proper infrastructure is in place to prevent this.

These considerations are especially important when looking forward to the future. Over the past 70 years, population demographics have shifted rapidly in Asia. Many countries in the region have followed traditional industrial development paths to become what we now consider “developed” nations.

The next region set for a drastic population boom is Africa, according to Professor Klemeš. However, the world simply cannot afford for the region to follow the same development path as its predecessors.

Discovering, financing and implementing circular solutions should not be the burden of African nations, however. The Western world and many Asian countries had the privilege of utilizing their vast non-renewable energy sources to support their industrial development.

For Africa, this is not an option anymore, and so it is imperative that states work multilaterally with each other and industries to ensure viable options for circular development are available to everyone.

The biggest takeaway from today’s conference was that it is not too late to save the earth. Dramatically adjusting production methods and consumption habits can have a significant enough impact to halt the forces of climate change.

While encouraging citizens to eat less meat, buy fewer clothes, and reuse and recycle more will have a significant impact, the problem is much bigger. Mutual trust, understanding and cooperation is needed between the state and private sector to fully implement a circular economy.

Industry and governments must work in tandem to ensure sustainable production practices are adhered to, and newly developing economies are not left in the dark.

Updated : 2021-02-27 07:00 GMT+08:00