The Promise of Circular Economy
Environmental consciousness in society is rapidly increasing, which has led to an unprecedented, strong call for action.
People ask me — regularly with some scepticism — “are you optimistic about us being able to move to a future proof, environmentally friendly society in time?” To be honest: I am when we are able to put our hearts into it. Since the seventies, I have been actively engaged in combatting the staggering environmental problems that humanity faces. I have helped to change course in various capacities: I have worked in the environmental movement, the academic world and in industry, and between 2007 and 2010 I was the Dutch Minister for the Environment. Since then, I have been a changemaker, working on implementing circular economy in different industries and regions.
My optimism comes from my experiences in each of these roles. I have met thousands of people that are aware of climate threats. People that wanted to adapt to change, and actually did in their own company, region or country. Besides that, environmental consciousness in society is rapidly increasing, which has led to an unprecedented, strong call for action. It’s not just a small number of environmentalists like me anymore; there is a broad movement within civil society, industry and the research world that actively engages in shaping an environmentally friendly future. Furthermore, we have developed so much knowledge and expertise during the last 50 years, that we have enough technical means to solve the problems.
Circular economy provides a positive scenario for what we can do to find a balance between what the earth provides us and what we need: to become much more resource efficient and prudent in how we produce and consume.
Circular economy provides a positive scenario for what we can do to find a balance between what the earth provides us and what we need: to become much more resource efficient and prudent in how we produce and consume. It balls together everything we need for restoring the healthy functioning of the environment and to behave accordingly as humankind. The idea is simple. Instead of throwing away products after use – which represents the linear economy – we need to keep products in the cycle and move to a circular economy.
In this economy, we aim to close the loops of products, materials and resources with the lowest possible environmental impacts, while making use of renewable energy sources and safeguarding the biodiversity on earth. In a circular economy we reduce resource use, promote sustainable economic growth, improve well-being and help to support more equal distribution of income worldwide. The circular economy includes all three major environmental issues: resources’ overconsumption, global warming, and biodiversity, and the negative impacts going along with them. But it particularly addresses the excessive use of natural resources. When we can effectively tackle this issue, we will also help solve the other major environmental problems. Namely, excessive use of resources accounts overall for more than 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress impacts, approximately 50 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and increasing scarcity of some key resources. I’m not the only one that sees the potential of the circular economy. Around the world there are thousands of circular initiatives. Countries, regions, companies, and entire product chains are using the concept of circular economy for formulating a future proof vision and strategy.
The circular economy concerns system changes in neighbourhoods, cities, regions and product chains, which means that governments, producers and consumers need to adapt. It is a collective change process: neither one company nor one citizen or governmental body can make the change alone. The preparation of the system change to circular economy requires an alignment and cooperation between different stakeholders. It starts with frontrunners taking the lead, after that practices should be scaled up and mainstreamed. This change process does not happen by itself; it requires a new form of governance, called network governance. The essence of network governance is that different stakeholders get aligned and cooperate to jointly make the change from one system to another (here: from a linear to a circular economy). This is the most difficult hurdle to take and only works when all partners in the network have a shared sense of urgency and are willing to join forces.
The essence of network governance is that different stakeholders get aligned and cooperate to jointly make the change from one system to another
The COVID-19 crisis shows that society is able to mobilise such joined forces. There is no time to quarrel about the best option or to act in silos. Everybody needs to roll up their sleeves and do what they can to get the crisis under control. Decisions are made fast and new ways of working are introduced without much resistance. When we act in a similar manner to solve the environmental crisis, my optimism will become sky high. Technically, we know very well what we have to do. The problem is our collective inertia to move ahead fast. Although COVID-19 has cost a lot of lives and caused huge economic and social problems, the decisiveness in managing this problem stands out as a shining example of how to organise a system change. COVID-19 is just a harbinger of the even bigger environmental crisis ahead of us. Let us learn from the COVID-19 crisis to prevent this catastrophe to happen.
This blog is inspired by my book ‘How Network Governance Powers the Circular Economy; Ten Guiding Principles for Building a Circular Economy based on Dutch Experiences’, that will be published in November 2020 by the Amsterdam Economic Board.
Prof. dr. Jacqueline Cramer is a former Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment and Chairman of Holland Circular Hotspot. At SHIFT 2020, Jacqueline will be talking about the Dutch experiences and examples of implementing circular economy in practice.