In a circular economy, there is no waste - products are designed to be durable, reusable, repairable and recyclable, and when they come to the end of their life the resources in them are pumped back into productive use again. Our economy will need a paradigm shift to transition from a linear economy to a truly closed-loop circular economy.
However, we do not have unlimited time and the change needs to accelerate. The window of opportunity is short - less than 30 years. During this time, we need to multiply our efforts and increase resource efficiency tenfold. We need to produce the same welfare for people, better competitiveness for our industries and profits for our companies with a tenth of the resources we are currently using.
“Our economy will need a paradigm shift to transition from a linear economy to a truly closed-loop circular economy. However, we do not have unlimited time and the change needs to accelerate”
The challenges are growing exponentially. Climate change, biodiversity loss and demand for resources are accelerating, while available natural resources are scarce. We are currently overshooting our resource consumption, beyond the regenerative capacity of natural ecosystems. This cannot continue.
We are already consuming the resources of more than one and a half planets every year and therefore need to act immediately. Current trends are still rising. If we continue with existing policies and pledges, we will need more than three planets worth of resources by 2050. The longer we wait, the more radical and expensive the required actions will be.
We have to keep in mind that besides the tenfold increase in resource efficiency that will be required, our circular economy goals must also be in accordance with sustainability principles: non-renewable resources in closed systems, the sustainable use of renewable resources, no damage to biodiversity and operating without harmful emissions.
We have a unique window of opportunity with the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility and sustainable finance as a backup. We should use the NextGenerationEU’s €750bn to support the transition to circularity, fully implementing the ‘do no significant harm’ principle in all EU funding as well as in the Multiannual Financial Framework. This should act as a guideline for the European semester.
Some basic requirements for the transition are required. We will need to step up our ecological and ecosystem knowledge and competencies in both our public and private sectors. This needs to be considered as important as economic knowledge.
What is needed for company reporting is comparable sustainability data, based on robust standards and built on harmonised sustainability indicators that measure key aspects of sustainability of economic activity and measured using a common methodology. And of course, companies need to report accordingly.
The European Parliament has demanded science-based binding targets for resource use and indicators, based on a harmonised life-cycle analysis and natural capital accounting. Durable, safe and non-toxic products and materials should become the norm.
The circular economy is the most effective way to solve these challenges and is also good for our businesses, competitiveness and resource security. The European Parliament has also taken into account the opportunities and challenges of digitalisation, such as the ever-increasing environmental impact, both in terms of emissions and in the use of raw materials.
Both the service economy and product-as-a-service models are among the important solutions we need to support. This requires us to redefine products as a service: we do not buy mobile phones for the aluminium or plastic; we buy them for their communications services.
“We cannot keep supporting environmentally harmful action. Otherwise, we will be leaving both our public and climate debts to future generations”
This would also provide incentives for producers and the owners to create more durable products and to take better care of them to extend their lifetime. The upcoming Sustainable Products Initiative, as well as the principle of designing out waste in all societal sectors, are crucial and important first steps. In the future, ecodesign requirements should be placed on a global scale.
Furthermore, we need to ensure that the new finances do not get side-tracked. We must ensure that funding is directed to a recovery that is sustainable in the long term. No money should be spent on unsustainable economic activity or businesses.
They need to be truly up to the scale of the challenge and capable of solving it. We cannot keep supporting environmentally harmful action. Otherwise, we will be leaving both our public and climate debts to future generations. The message is clear: Spend money wisely and phase out fossil fuel and other environmentally harmful subsidies.