The circular economy must be a key driver to net zero

- October 12, 2021

The circular economy answers three big questions on climate change - resource scarcity, carbon emissions and waste - all critical to COP26 ambitions. In the countdown to the UN Climate Change Conference, CEO of 3stepIT and BNP Paribas 3 Step IT, Carmen Ene, shares her thoughts on the task ahead for global leaders, in the second of a series of blogs on the topic.

 

Recently, the most comprehensive analysis of our climate in history was released. It was authored by the most authoritative organisation on the topic, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and it did not make for pleasant reading.

 

The report reaffirms 1.5 degrees of global warming as the limit to preventing widespread environmental catastrophe. In every scenario it set out, we exceed the critical level of 1.5C before 2035, and in the worst case by 2028. The UN called this a "code red for humanity".

 

The IPCC convenes the world’s leading scientists on climate change, with their findings endorsed by 195 member governments, making the report a serious influence on global policy. It will be central to the agenda of world leaders, who gather at the COP26 convention in November. They will be asking, how do we reimagine a world where we can grow, but without the devastating impact on the environment?

 

The COP26 goals are directed at creating large scale change at a country-level. One key ambition is to secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5C in reach. It asks countries to look at four levers:

  • accelerate the phase-out of coal
  • curtail deforestation
  • speed up the switch to electric vehicles
  • encourage investment in renewables.


All of these are important and necessary actions, but one clear omission is the widespread adoption of the circular economy. We know that renewable energy can only address 55% of emissions, while production is responsible for the remaining 45%. Plus, alongside carbon, two of the biggest issues for climate change are resource scarcity and waste. All three of these are addressed by the circular economy.

Core to the idea of circularity is an ability for us to limit our dependence on natural resources and reduce emissions, while still allowing for economic growth. Sharing platforms, product as a service and product life extension can be applied across all industries. My focus, an area where a lot of improvement is needed, is the reuse of business technology.

Unlike for industries such as fashion, the reuse of electronics is still emerging, despite the devastating impact of electronic waste on the environment. We know less than half of Europe’s e-waste is collected and recycled through official channels, with reuse rates reportedly under 5%.

Notwithstanding all the good that has come from the big push to encourage recycling, it’s time to shift the narrative towards reuse. A good first step would be to building on the important work of the Circular Economy Action Plan, which was introduced by the European Parliament last year. The plan has as one of its priorities the reduction of electronic waste, but to date, MEPs have focussed on promoting longer product life through reusability and reparability. The next step must be a big push to encourage and even mandate reuse.

Data from our refurbishing centres shows that simply by adopting a circular approach to IT, a business with 250 employees could avoid CO2 emissions equivalent to flying around the circumference of the world 11 times. It’s a solution that can easily scale and demonstrates just how significant reuse can be to our global sustainability ambitions.

There is still hope for our planet, but we need to take action now. In the best scenario set out by the IPCC, we hold off reaching 1.5C by 2035 and then retreat from there. This requires that we achieve net zero emissions globally by 2050, and then quickly remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

The circular economy must be a key tenant of any plan to achieve this ambitious but crucial goal. It will require innovation from and uptake by business, as well as nations. As business leaders we can take matters into our own hands and support the work of global governments as they try to implement large scale solutions. For those looking for a place to start, a more sustainable approach to technology should be top of the agenda.

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