Time to Jump on the Circular Economy Bandwagon

Nov 21 , 2020
By Tewolde Mulu

Realising a circular economic system is not a choice. It is an obligation for any country with limited resources but ever growing needs. Unfortunately, it is not being given the level of importance that it deserves, writes Tewolde Mulu (tewoldemulu@gmail.com), a researcher at the Technology & Innovation Institute.

The present "linear" economy operates by taking, using and disposing of raw materials. This is acceptable only as far as resources do not have limitations. But as the post-Industrial age has shown us, this results in resource scarcity, and it will create unsustainable economic development going forward. Due to this, our policymakers ought to orient their focus toward the proposal and implementation of an alternate economic principle –"circular" economies.

The concept of a circular economy was conceived in the 1970s with the intension of promoting a world where the absolute minimum goes to waste. Although not attributed to a single work or author, the concept gained momentum in the 1970s when it could be applied to modern economic systems and industrial processes. It has evolved over the past five decades.

Making this matter all the more urgent is that the global population has risen from approximately one billion in the early 1800s to over seven billion today. It is expected to reach close to 10 billion by the mid-2000s, according to several projections.

Application of the circular economy thus will have critical importance. It can contribute to climate adaptation and resilience, including more efficient use of water and energy resources, improved management of land ecosystems to mitigate climate-induced yield losses, and innovative approaches to disaster-ready buildings and infrastructure construction. With middle and lower-income countries expected to experience the worst effects of climate change in the short to medium term, they will be the beneficiaries of the fruits of a circular economy.

Such an economy must give special attention to urbanisation. Globally, three million people become residents of urban areas every week, while over half of the world’s population is believed to live in urban areas. Wealth is also concentrated in cities, accounting for 85pc of global GDP generation, according to the World Bank.

Here it will change from “simple recycling of post-consumer products to whole value chain circularity; from single industry to cross-industry development; and from focusing primarily on production to considering the entire life cycle of products,” as the Centre for Sustainable Consumption & Production, a think tank co-funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), elucidates.

Some countries have already taken initiatives toward circular economies. New York aims for zero waste by 2030; Denmark plans to recycle half of all household waste within the next two years; and London aims to have no recyclable waste sent to landfills by 2026.

True, the policymakers in these cities would be challenged by the fact that many companies, above all in resource-intensive ones, will be disincentivised to invest. But it is telling of how attitudes and understanding are changing when countries such as China, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany are jumping on the bandwagon. China, in fact, passed a law for the promotion of a circular economy in 2008.

Some African countries have also proven that they are willing to rise to the challenge. For instance, the proportion of waste that was collected in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was five percent in the early 1990s. Initiatives by the UN Sustainable Cities Programme brought this up to an estimated 32pc within just over a decade.

Implementing such initiatives for the world, and indeed Ethiopia, is not a choice. It is an obligation for a planet with limited resources. This was why it was important for Ethiopia to participate in different international and governmental conferences to take important lessons and sign agreements to achieve development goals (sustainable production and consumption is the 12th point on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals).

In 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement also gave opportunities for countries to think of other ways for growth and development. They placed sustainable production and consumption at the forefront of global efforts to achieve equitable economic growth and tackle climate change.

Unfortunately, circular economy as an economic system is not given the level of attention it deserves. There have been policies from as far back as 2011, such as the Climate Resilient Green Economy, to reduce the impact of climate change through renewable energy. But there is a glaring gap in bringing forth a circular economy. The good news is that it is not late to reorient focus.

Existing and future economic policies must be aligned with the circular economy. This should be true of Ethiopia’s coming 10-year economic plan. It will entail the integration of sectors so that raw materials are not wasted and can serve several purposes without being thrown out. Higher government officials and policy strategists should give high emphasis to a circular economy for resilient growth in sustainable development.

Like any plan, it would require funding and knowledge-sharing. Developmental projects and infrastructure ought to be designed in consideration of a circular economy, which requires know-how and capital. Fortunately, given the attention currently being afforded to climate resilience, the government would receive support from bilateral partners and multilateral institution.

Culture will undoubtedly complicate whether or not there is an uptake of a circular economy. But by creating strong collaboration between government and non-government institutes, multinational businesses and entrepreneurs, and international development agencies and international coordinating bodies, it is possible to cross the bridge.

An inclusive approach to such an economy requires examination not only of national strategies but also of the cross-border effects of alternative development strategies. It also requires scrutiny of the role of regional and international circular value chain development in delivering the transition away from a linear economy to scale.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 21,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1073]

(tewoldemulu@gmail.com), a researcher at the Technology & Innovation Institute.

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