Report reveals carbon impact of a circular economy

I’ve been fortunate, in my time with Zero Waste Scotland, to have presided over a number of things which I consider have been real game changers.

Written By Iain Gulland  |  15 Jun 15

That has included the publication of The Food We Waste in Scotland report, which revealed the full extent of household food waste for the first time; the launch of Resource Efficient Scotland, which brought together business advice on waste, energy and water in a new approach; and most recently, our evidence into the direct and indirect costs of litter, which underpinned the Scottish Government’s first ever national litter strategy.

I believe that in the future, I will look back on today as another such moment.   That is because we have published a new study called The Carbon Impacts of a Circular Economy – launched this afternoon by Climate Change Minister Aileen MacLeod at EU Environment Council in Luxembourg.   

The report is one of the first we’re aware of that has examined the potential of circular economy strategies on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a national level.

It reveals that material consumption is responsible for over two-thirds of Scotland’s carbon emissions, and as a consequence, a more circular Scottish economy could reduce territorial emissions by 11 million tonnes CO2e per year by 2050, compared to a business-as-usual scenario.  To put this in context, our current annual emissions stand at around 53 million tonnes CO2e, so we could potentially save over one-fifth of current territorial emissions.  The potential benefits are greater still when we consider the emissions related with the things we consume through their full life cycle, not just what happens within our own borders.

The numbers are impressive and reaffirm that Scotland’s decision to ‘run with the leaders’ on the circular economy internationally has been the right one.

But what’s even more important about this report is the timing of its publication.  This is a critical time for policy makers working on both waste and resources and on climate change, with circular economy roadmaps in development both here in Scotland and at European level, and with the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris later this year.

While these two agendas are distinct and have been progressing well in parallel, this report suggests there could be real advantages in aligning them more closely, particularly if the aim from a circular economy perspective is to establish a mandate at the heart of mainstream policy making, whereas historically ‘waste’ policy might have been on the periphery.

The climate change agenda offers two clear benefits in that regard: firstly, it is driven by binding targets and international agreements and, secondly, it is a unifying driver, bringing together different policy agenda behind a common goal. 

In my view, this is entirely complementary to efforts to break the circular economy into mainstream economic policy.  The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and others continue to make real progress in this space and long may that continue.

But what this report suggests is that it’s not an either/or situation between economy and environment in terms of what is driving policy.  We need to create the conditions for businesses in particular to lead on the circular economy, supported by favourable economic policy.   But adding climate change as another ‘string to the bow’ could be a massive help and move things forward more quickly and decisively that we may have previously hoped. 

I’m excited about the possibilities and conversations that I hope this report opens up and look forward to Zero Waste Scotland playing a key role in that.

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