Overlooking emissions embodied in materials threatens any chance of reaching the 1.5-degrees target

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.

70% OF GLOBAL EMISSIONS ARE TIED TO MATERIAL USE AND HANDLING

As consumption has risen — fuelled 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.‍

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.‍

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.

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.‍

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.

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.‍

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