Challenges of the circular economy

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Former European Commissioner for Environment Dr Janez Potocnik

Maxine Perella reports from Circular Economy Hotspot Scotland, where speakers – including from the UN and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – discussed the circularity challenge.

“Four years ago when we started this journey, it was the dream of a few – now it’s a reality for many.”

With an air of optimism, former European Commissioner for Environment Dr Janez Potočnik (now co-chair of the UN International Resource Panel) reflected on how far EU policy on the circular economy has evolved in recent years, during his keynote speech at the recent Circular Economy Hotspot Scotland in Glasgow.

“It started as an environmental initiative,” he told delegates. “In two years, it has transformed to an economic-based initiative with positive environmental and health consequences.”

The former Commissioner was quick to point out that despite such progress, there were still significant hurdles to overcome if circularity is to be scaled up and governed effectively. Potočnik said that the main challenge policy-makers and other stakeholders faced was one of co-operation and implementation, rather than knowledge and understanding of the issue.

“We all want changes, but nobody really wants to change – it’s a starting point we all need to understand,” he observed.

Potočnik pointed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a key driver that could help achieve such change, notably Goal 12, which focuses on sustainable consumption and production, calling it an “unavoidable ingredient” to deliver the transition towards a circular economy.

He then outlined quite a detailed governance framework, designed to work on various levels. To begin with, Potočnik said much could be done at city and regional level due to the relative autonomy that city leaders have, and the concentration of circular-economy-related problems and opportunities contained within urban environments. “Cities can do a lot without having a clear lead from governments,” he said.

Setting the agenda

At national level, governments should be encouraged to strategically approach the circular economy as an agenda for change as they seek to make their national economies more SDG-compliant, Potočnik continued.

“Many EU member states have already prepared circular economy roadmaps and all action plans. Our aim should be to cover all EU member states.”

Scaling up further at EU level would require the next EU Commission to place the circular economy at the top of their agenda, and to start building a coalition of circular member state front-runners, Potočnik said.

He called on the current European Commission to give some indication that they are putting together the ingredients of a future action plan for the next Commission to ensure Europe maintains leadership on the issue.

Potočnik stressed the need to build new coalitions for change by broadening ownership of circular economy concepts. This, he said, could be achieved by partnering with those dealing with other areas such as climate change, bio-economy, health, digital transformation, international relations, development aid and trade.

“We need to better link the circular economy to competitiveness. We need to ensure that the development and use of new technologies creates value for society,” he told delegates.

Equally important is ensuring that any transition on a global level is both fair and inclusive, with special attention given to the least developed countries.

“We need to be able to show our transitions can work specifically for developing countries and resource exporters – what does leapfrogging to a circular economy mean for them?” Potočnik questioned.

“In that context we should focus on social aspects of circular economy processes – employment, inclusiveness, local benefits – which are crucial for better acceptance of the circular economy. It should be understood that the circular economy is not another Western type of model used to expand and protect our own competitiveness and interests.”

Global consensus

Potočnik ended his talk by proposing the development of an international agreement, which could potentially take the form of a UN Convention for National Resources Management.

This, he said, could help establish necessary standards to enable better refinement of circular models, assist in international trade, and contribute to the development of globally comparable indicators to measure progress.

"If we don't push the circular economy at global level, we will do nothing,” he told delegates. “We need to strengthen co-operation and reach a consensus for co-ordinated global action.”

There is no question that cities can act as powerhouses to spark this circular transition. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is working on a vision for circular city systems, which it hopes to share in more detail next year.

EMF’s cities project lead Miranda Schnitger told delegates that while cities generate 75% of our resources, they also produce 50% of our waste. Citing a huge opportunity here, she said: “We’ve got more and more people moving into cities – can we use those 75% of resources we are putting in to stop creating all this waste?”

For those municipalities that have joined EMF’s Circular Cities Network, Schnitger noted there was an “incredible openness” to engage in peer-to-peer dialogue, which could help accelerate this shift. “With cities, pre-competitive collaboration happens quite naturally.”

She added: “There isn’t one standard template – some are coming because their governments have created a national strategy, for others it’s about building an identity, making an attractive place to live and work. The inspiration is coming from different angles.”

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