It’s time for a system upgrade: From climate change to biodiversity loss, the crises that we’re facing are the direct consequences of an economic model that has not been updated since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Though it has certainly grown in sophistication, it’s today hitting critical boundaries — in this context, the circular economy provides a positive way forward and is increasingly being adopted by policymakers and business leaders alike.
Addressing the root cause of the global challenges facing our societies amounts to profoundly rethinking the way value is created, moving away from the extractive and polluting the “take, make, waste” linear economy. As leading scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services now recognize, transformative change — which entails a “system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors” — is required. This is another way of saying that incremental tweaks that do not challenge business as usual will not get us on a positive path: we need a circular, regenerative economy at scale.
The prospect of such a wide-ranging transition may sound daunting both in terms of scope and timeline. Yet its economic benefits, such as material savings, and environmental advantages, including GHG emission reductions, resonate with corporate strategic goals. On the international stage, the circular economy framework is increasingly being taken up by international institutions and governments: in Canada, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has commissioned a report from the Council of Academies, to gauge the potential of circular strategies for the country.
This framework, which relies on eliminating toxicity and pollution, circulating valuable materials and regenerating natural systems, is also being pitched as a solution for some of the most acute current problems — plastic pollution being a very prominent example. As member states gathered for the 5th United Nations Environmental Assembly in February, the question of a potential legally binding instrument to address the plastic pollution issue was sitting firmly at the top of the agenda. Despite some well-founded fears that it would not get a mandate, the idea of a ‘treaty’ or ‘agreement’ was adopted, referencing the circular economy as a key strategy for delivery.
This is a significant development — even though negotiations will no doubt prove arduous — which gives a sense of how loud the call for a system reset is getting. To achieve a circular economy at a global scale will require significant changes to business practices, enabled by targeted policy measures. Mobilizing finance and making ambitious national commitments are also essential steps on the journey. Yet it remains important to “join the dots” and show how circular economy strategies — too often only within the remit of environmental ministries only — can apply to a variety of sectors and contribute to achieving several Sustainable Development Goals, all while ushering in better growth opportunities.
At the heart of this transformation is an innovation and competitiveness agenda, whose ultimate objective is a nature-positive economic model that can work in the long term. This transformation can start right now.