Current efforts by countries to reduce their carbon footprint fall short of ambitions to keep a 1.5°C or 2.0°C scenario alive. Meanwhile, a range of circular economy opportunities to reduce and sequester greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions remain untapped. This Toolbox guides policymakers through the whole policy cycle, from problem definition, policy response, policy design to evaluation. Its objective is to help countries integrate realistic circular economy ambitions and policies into their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).
In October 2023 a coalition of three UN organisations launched an online Toolbox to help policymakers pick the right tools to identify, understand and assess national circular economy opportunities. The tools are selected for their ability to point at the most suitable circular economy policies to support ambitions to reduce GHG emissions and enhance climate resilience.
The toolbox is a structured repository of 33 online tools complemented by a range of resources for those that want to dive deep into the details. It brings together the pioneering work from three UN organisations, SITRA, WRI, ICAT, Circle Economy, EMF, PACE and many others. The user journey is such that the toolbox can support countries regardless of how far they have advanced in the transition to a circular economy.
The untapped circular GHG mitigation potential
The current pledges and commitments for climate mitigation are insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement targets. An additional GHG emissions reduction of 55% is needed by 2030 to limit global temperature to an average increase of 1.5°C compared to preindustrial levels. To deal with the climate emergency and meet global targets, climate mitigation ambition must increase significantly, while the achievement of existing commitments should be ensured.
Efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions focus on actual emission sources. An estimated 67 of global GHG emissions are embedded in materials and products (UNDP, 2017; Stanley Foundation, 2018), but reducing the demand for carbon-intensive materials as a climate mitigation strategy has received little attention. Therefore, strategies that reduce material use could be the key to increasing global climate action ambition and can be integrating into climate mitigation policies and especially NDCs.
Still, between 1990 and 2017 the global extraction of raw materials more than doubled, and it is projected to double again by 2060 (OECD, 2019; IRP 2019). This is due to economic growth but above all a flawed, linear economic model in which materials are extracted, processed, used and disposed often after a single-use cycle. Reducing impacts by sustainably sourcing inputs or the remediation of environmental impacts, while important, is not sufficient to deal with the projected environmental impacts due to the sheer size of resource extraction and material use expected this century. A new approach is necessary to the way we use materials to meet societal needs, such as our need for shelter, mobility and nutrition.
Circular approaches to public policy and NDCs
Circular economy policies refer to a range of measures that include actions, commitments, government expenditures, and policy instruments, with the objective of reducing material extraction and decreasing waste. These strategies target the substitution of carbon-intensive materials, extend the lifetime of products and keep materials in the production process longer along the value chain as ways to reduce material-use and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, by reducing the amount of virgin materials used the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their extraction, processing and manufacturing can be reduced, while also reducing waste and pollution.
The circular economy is more than a strategy to reduce and recover materials and waste management. Rather it takes a systemic approach to the whole value chain or system, aiming to minimize material use through system and product design. It proposes a fundamental shift from a linear production model where materials are used only once, to a circular model in which regenerative and secondary resources are prioritized, alternative business models and product design help extend product lifetimes and the recovery of components or materials. Since all materials and products have a carbon footprint, this can drastically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions (The Circularity Gap Report, 2021).
Aware of the mitigation potential, many countries are seeking to align their mitigation policies with circular, low-carbon development ambitions. To date, 17% of countries refer to the circular economy in their NDCs (WRI, 2022).
For this project Shifting Paradigms joined forces with Rodrigo Pizarro Gariazzo, who was leading the Environmental Economics and Information Division of the Ministry of the Environment of Chile when Chile developed its circular economy roadmap and carbon taxation scheme.
The project is a joint effort by the United Nations Environment Programme – 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns (UNEP – 10YFP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Climate Change (UNFCCC) working closely with Member States and other stakeholders engaged in UNEP’s One Planet Network and UNDP’s Climate Promise. This project is supported by the Government of the Netherlands and the Finnish Innovation Fund, SITRA and is a key implementation mechanism for the Paris Agreement and 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.