The circular economy is increasingly seen as a steppingstone toward sustainability. The last 150 years of industrial evolution have been dominated by a one-way or linear model of production and consumption in which goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold, used, and then discarded or incinerated as waste. The use of fossil fuels is deeply integrated into the global economy, to the extent that if we seek to abruptly dismantle these linkages, it might collapse.
The struggle for market shares of emerging green technologies (namely, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric batteries) generates politics. Embracing inclusive sustainability and a circular economy for both fossil fuel-based and green technologies is a fair game. If only the circular carbon economy (CCE) for fossil fuels is implemented, then it will be disadvantaged, and green technologies will see a boost in cost advantage.
An economy is an open system because it interacts with the surrounding environment, from which usable energy and materials are extracted and unusable wastes are returned. In a linear economy, sustainability cannot improve by focusing on efficiency within the “take-make-waste” model (i.e. maximizing economic value with a minimized environmental impact).
Humans are continually exhausting both natural sources and sinks. Current human activities make the transformation and rearrangement of material and energy inevitably irreversible processes, whereby they become irrevocably scattered and, as a result, less available. This is suboptimal and unsustainable. The transfer to a sustainable economy, therefore, necessitates closing the loops from both sides — resources and sinks.
In contrast to the “take-make-waste” linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources. Circularity does not necessarily undermine current generational values and preferences, and it does not require economic growth to end. The puzzle that the circular economy attempts to solve is how to reconcile perpetual growth with finite natural resources and sinks.
The circular economy is about flow. The flow of energy and materials produces what we use or consume. It is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. Also, it designs out the negative impacts of economic activity that cause damage to the environment. This includes the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and hazardous substances, which result in the pollution of air, land and water, as well as structural waste such as traffic congestion. Circular economy business models modify the pattern of product and material flows through the economy.
There are four key value drivers for the circular economy. The first is extending the use cycle length of an asset. The second is increasing the utilization of an asset or resource. The third is looping or cascading an asset through additional use cycles. The final driver is the regeneration of natural capital or preserving and enhancing the long-term productivity of natural systems.
The time has come to use targeted technological innovation within a CCE framework to change the current business model by inventing new ways to consume fossil fuels without releasing GHGs into the atmosphere. In a CCE, technological innovation plays a vital role in reducing and removing emissions, converting CO2 into a positive and finding sustainable alternatives. Circularity means that targeted chemical elements, like CO2, will mimic their natural cycles. Thus, their sources or sinks will not be under-exhausted or over-exhausted — they will simply recycle in the economy under different chemical and physical forms.
At the coming G20 event, I will suggest establishing a bond between sustainability and a circular economy. While the scale and urgency of climate change need to be addressed, the global economy and climate change policies need to be aligned. If only a CCE is implemented, then the green economy, which is unsustainable, will have an advantage at the early stage. A circular economy can be embodied in the G20 efforts, as a platform for global economic governance, to lead and catalyze multilateral negotiations on the environmental and global economy dilemma by turning the current momentum into action.
Nadhmi Alkhamis is a Saudi writer specializing in energy and climate change.