UN Climate Speech / 08 Feb, 2019
Circular Economy Is Crucial for Climate Protection - Patricia Espinosa

UN Climate Change News 8 February, 2019 - According to the UN-aligned group International Resource Panel, the global use of materials has more than tripled since 1970 and could double again by 2050. This has major implications for climate change and climate action.

62 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — excluding those from land use and forestry — are released during the extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods to serve society’s needs.

A central part of the solution to climate change therefore lies in the so-called "circular economy" - a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops.

In her second address students at the Bauhaus-University in Weimar on 6 February 2019, the UN's top climate change official Patricia Espinosa spoke about the "“Circular Economy as A Path Towards Sustainability”.

Read her full lecture here:

It is a pleasure to return to Bauhaus University and continue this lecture series.

The last time I was here, I spoke about the underpinnings of the climate change regime, the urgency of our situation, what the global community is doing about it, and your role in all of this.

I made the point that in addition to our current challenges related to climate change, the next few decades will also see a significant rise in the global population.

Emerging economies are already building infrastructure to deal with this rise, while more developed economies must replace infrastructure built decades ago.

This puts us in a tough spot: we know how we’ve always built that infrastructure—how we’ve always used materials in general—has a negative impact on the environment.

But unless we’d like to see an utter collapse in the global economy, we can’t snap our fingers and stop building or producing things.  

It’s clear we must find more efficient ways to design, build, and maintain our buildings and our infrastructure.

One of the biggest changes we need—especially in developed countries—is an attitude change.

I’m specifically referring to the use and dispose society we’ve become. In our homes and our businesses.

When we discuss climate change, and reducing emissions, we tend to focus on the end product.

But, as I discussed with students during my last visit, this is surface-green only. From design to supply chain to final product, the entire system must be thought out more carefully.

Today, I’m here to talk about an idea that will help get us there.

It’s not a new or revolutionary idea, nor—unfortunately—does it receive much attention by governments or business.

But it can be part of the positive tipping point when it comes to addressing climate change and building a more sustainable future.

It’s something that each of you can begin adopting today and incorporate into your professional work.

And that’s the idea of the circular economy. Circular economy: it sounds like a catch-phrase that a group of global economists put together. But what does it mean, and how does it really work? 

Let me share a story with you. It’s the story of an entrepreneur. He heads up a small company in France. After some intensive market research he’s identified a lucrative opportunity.

He’s discovered that there’s a particular kind of metal that people in his community are simply throwing away after they use it.

This metal isn’t worth very much. But if you put enough of it together and melt it down—if you re-purpose it—well, you can make a handsome profit.

This man doesn’t have a business degree, but he knows people. And his interviews with prospective buyers tells him that if he acts quickly, he’ll establish a clear competitive advantage and capture a significant market share.

But he runs into a challenge. The only place that can melt down or re-purpose this kind of metal is in England.

Remember, he’s in France—he’s got to cross the channel. Flying it over isn’t an option. He’s got a supply chain problem.

But his research tells him it’s still worth it. He takes a chance. He secures a boat, a crew, loads up the metal and sets out.

He almost gets there. As he approaches the looming white cliffs of Dover near Kent, he runs into a problem—a very big problem.

Subsequent investigations have not precisely identified what exactly happened, but just off the coast, the man’s boat sinks, along with the metal.

Yes, this story has a bad ending. But it’s a story that has a different message for us—something that directly relates to our subject.

Because what I’ve not told you is that our intrepid recycler, this pioneer of the circular economy, as we call it now… died approximately 3,000 years ago.

While it’s difficult to know precisely, studies show he was bringing old bronze – in the form of winged axes and spear heads—over to Dover to recycle into something new.

He wasn’t the only one. In fact, it’s widely accepted that recycling—at least a form of it—began as far back as the Bronze Age.

In any case, our man recognized that not only was throwing out that old bronze wasteful, it was a missed economic opportunity. And while he wasn’t ultimately successful, we can be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here to ask you to start collecting bronze, I’m here to tell you that the idea of the circular economy is an idea that is almost as old as our existence on this planet.

It’s simply common sense. And it’s a solution hiding in broad daylight.

I began this story by asking you…what is the circular economy?

Three words: re-use, re-manufacturing and re-cycling.

Developed economies, especially when times are good, love to simply throw away what they don’t use.

They tend not to build with the future in mind. Designing buildings that are sustainable for the future? What for? Just tear them down and build new ones.

We do the same with old computers, old clothes, old sports equipment, old food, and especially old appliances.

Each year we dump more than 2.12 billion tonnes of waste. Let’s put that into perspective. If all this waste was put on trucks, they’d go around the world 24 times.

Most isn’t even old…much of the stuff we throw out is still new. In fact, 99 percent of the things we buy is trashed within six months.

Think of clothes alone. I was listening to the BBC the other day and they were interviewing someone who said that the average person keeps clothes for about five weeks. Where do those clothes go? Most go right to the landfill.

All this comes at a tremendous negative cost to the environment and is a major factor when it comes to climate change.

If we don’t take the opportunity now to re-use things and build systems in a more sustainable resilient way, forget about reaching a 1.5C climate goal, we will head in the opposite direction, and fast.

And if that happens? As we’ve seen, extreme weather has a way of sinking lives, economies and opportunities.

Current Situation

That’s not the outcome we want or desire.

But if we’re to ultimately accept and adopt the idea of a circular economy, I believe we need to dig deeper into practical applications and establish where the world currently stands on it.

After all, if it’s such an old, common sense idea, we must have made significant progress after 3,000 years, right?

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to share with you some key findings of something called The Circularity Gap Report 2019.

It’s an important report and one I’ll reference frequently today.

It was released a few weeks ago by an organization called Circle Economy at Davos during the World Economic Forum.

They describe the circular economy this way:

A regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops.

And they say the circular economy can be best achieved:…through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing and recycling.

Recycling, repair, re-using old materials…again, we’ve established that this is simply common sense and an old idea.

But consider this. That same report notes that most governments almost never consider circular economy measures in policies aimed at meeting the Paris Agreement targets.

In fact, it ​finds the global economy is only 9 per cent circular.

Further, only 9 per cent of the 92.8 billion tonnes of minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass that enter the economy annually are re-used.  

Let’s be frank—that’s an embarrassing amount.And as we’ve established, demand for materials won’t go down in the future—it’s going to rise significantly .

According to a UN-aligned group called the International Resource Panel, the global use of materials has more than tripled since 1970 and could double again by 2050. This, of course, is in line with the population growth we discussed earlier.

We can and must do better. And that means seeing a bigger picture. Earlier, I told you that we focus a lot on the end product when we talk about emissions.

But this report calculates that 62 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—excluding those from land use and forestry—are released during the extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods to serve society’s needs.

And only 38 percent are emitted in the delivery and use of products and services.

It’s clear we need a systemic change. So, let’s talk solutions. Let’s begin at the global level.

Governments must reconsider their climate change strategies with the circular economy in mind.

While it’s crucial to focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation, we must also consider the vast potential of the circular economy.

The CEO of Circle Economy, Harald Friedl, said it best:

They should re-engineer supply chains all the way back to the wells, fields, mines and quarries where our resources originate so that we consume fewer raw materials. This will not only reduce emissions but also boost growth by making economies more efficient.”

I completely agree. And nations must do this urgently and have this reflected in their national climate plans.

This adoption of the circular economy doesn’t stop with governments—businesses have a major role to play.

While adopting more efficient business practices is beneficial to their bottom line, businesses need to consider the wide-ranging impacts of their operations on the climate as a whole.

Many industries understand this. The fashion industry, for example, recognizes it has an incredible impact on the environment and emissions in general.

But they, as recently as COP24, have made a commitment to reduce their emissions and to look more closely at circular economy practices.

Some of the world’s biggest companies are doing the same. Apple has taken the step to power 100 per cent of its facilities worldwide with renewable energy.

I also recently spoke with a representative from the company who told me about a robot they call Daisy. This robot has one job: to reclaim and recycle valuable materials stored on an Iphone.

For example, the robot can recover rare earths, tungsten, and aluminum alloys. They can then use these materials to make new products or return them to the market. The company says this reduces the need to mine more resources from the earth.

Another global company, IKEA, is not only working towards 100 per cent renewable energy—producing as much energy as they consume—they’ve announced they will source all of their wood from more sustainable sources by 2020.

They’ve also made commitments that add up to $1 billion for climate action.

To be clear, I’m not an advocate for any business. Some businesses have other issues that they must address. I’m strictly referring to work they’re doing to lower emissions and/or
re-purpose material.

We need governments and businesses to take action, but we need all of you as well.

You are an integral part of whether or not circular economy approaches are ultimately accepted and used.

I know I’ve mentioned a lot of numbers here today, but here are two more…I think they’re important.

Currently, economies in what we call the developed world account for one fifth of global emissions.

And nearly half of all the materials going into the economies of developing countries—specifically, 42.4 billion tonnes a year—are used in the construction and maintenance of houses, offices, roads and infrastructure.

Imagine if you could make those numbers work differently.

Imagine the result if you helped adopt building practices which minimize the use of raw materials and thus reduce emissions.

Imagine the result if you could help do more with our existing infrastructure instead of simply tearing it down every decade.

Imagine replacing traditional building methods with state-of-the-art practices that won’t lock in high emissions for decades to come.

Imagine designing and building not just a few homes and buildings, but entire cities.

Imagine what that will do for resource efficiency.

Imagine what that will do with respect to emissions.

Imagine what that will mean for the climate.

Imagine what that will mean for a more sustainable future and that this is the future you can build. Each one of you.

Let me repeat what I said last week: you are the ones who will be the next ones to run our cities, design our cities, and live and raise families in those cities. You have a clear and undeniable interest in making all of this happen.

I want to end by sharing something else from that report I’ve quoted from widely here today. It’s also about solutions.

With respect to strategies towards implementing a circular economy, they offer three.

The first is optimizing the utility of products by maximizing their use and extending their lifetime.

The second is enhancing recycling and using waste as a resource.

Both of these are important. But here’s the third: Adopt circular design, reducing material consumption and using lower-carbon alternatives.

For example, they note that bamboo, wood and other natural materials have the potential to reduce dependence on carbon-intensive materials such as cement and metals in construction.

Instead of emitting carbon, these materials store it and will last for decades. They can be burnt to generate energy at the end of their life.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are design specialists. And you are specialists in the fields of architecture, economics, the arts and a wide variety of other subjects.

By not only accepting the circular economy, but adopting it, you have the potential to change so much, beginning today.

Beginning today means beginning to think about how the circular economy can not only work in your personal lives, but your professional lives as well.

Begin considering design, architecture, systems – anything – with the circular economy in mind.

And let’s not forget one basic thing: it’s not just about ending waste and reducing emissions, it’s about capturing opportunities. And you are in a unique point in history to capture those opportunities.

By capturing these opportunities, by making the changes we need, we will continue the idea that started thousands of years ago.

Only this time, we will complete the journey. We must. We have everything to gain if we do…and so much to lose if we don’t. Thank you.