Circular economy principles as a route to net zero

Globally, around 45% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be attributed to the production of materials, products and food, and the management of land.1 Global demand for industrial materials expected to double or quadruple by 2050, and global food demand to rise by 42%.1 Even with improvements to the energy efficiency of production and a switch to zero-carbon energy sources, emissions from these sectors would exceed targets to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2100.

Circular economic (CE) systems use technical or biological processes to reduce the demand for material inputs and increase the recovery or reuse of materials already in the system. A 2019 report by Material Economics and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation identified three main principles through which circular systems reduce GHG emissions:

Designing out waste and pollution to reduce GHG emissions across the value chain.
Keeping products and materials in use to retain the embodied energy in products and materials.
Regenerating natural systems to sequester carbon in soil and products.

This roundtable assesses progress towards circular economic systems in terms of national and global changes to traditional design, material uses and manufacturing processes. These include: energy shortfalls and associated cost rises, insecurity of material supply, oil price fluctuations, extreme weather events, the availability of water, increasing consumer environmental concerns, increased competition for reducing resources and limitations on disposal options. Furthermore, these processes are subject to increasingly stringent legislation.

Ben Lake MP

Prof Kerry Kirwan, University of Warwick