Making the connection between circular economy and COP26

By Lucy Jones  October 13th, 2021

Circularity is the missing link needed to curb emissions.

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This November over 190 world leaders will gather in Glasgow for COP26, the most significant global climate event in half a decade. The United Nations conference bills itself as "the world's last best chance to get runaway climate change under control". Over 12 days of talks, COP26 promises to deliver binding action plans for achieving the Paris Agreement goals set at COP21.   

COP stands for the 'conference of the parties' and is the main decision-making body of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under the convention, countries are bound by treaty to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The annual global climate summit brings together world leaders, negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens and has been running since 1995.  

In 2015 at COP21, countries committed to climate action under the Paris Agreement by establishing what are known as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs). The aim of these pledges is to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees and ideally to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

Fast forward to 2021 and we now know existing NDCs will not be sufficient to keep global temperature rise below either of these important benchmarks. The latest Circle Economy Gap Report found that even if countries were to hit their emissions reduction targets, global temperatures would still rise to between 2-3 degrees by 2044.  

World leaders will be under pressure to ramp up their NDCs at this year's COP26. While many of these climate pledges are understandably focused on energy systems, there is also a need to look at other strategies for tackling climate change. The four goals of COP26 are: 

  1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach. Countries are being asked to set ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets that put them on a path to net zero by 2050. 

  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats. Countries are encouraged to protect and restore ecosystems and build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to mitigate impacts of climate change. 

  3. Mobilise finance. Countries will need to mobilise at least $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 to deliver on goals 1 and 2. 

  4. Work together to deliver. At COP26 countries must finalise the Paris Rulebook and accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society. 

Research conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that transitioning to renewable energy can only address 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Circular solutions are needed to tackle the remaining 45 per cent of emissions generated by industry, agriculture and land use. Circle Economy’s latest Gap Report reinforces this idea, showing a whopping 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are actually associated with material extraction, handling and use. These findings make one thing clear: the circular economy has a critical role to play in helping us reach climate targets.  

Despite the clear evidence supporting circular approaches, only one country's NDC currently links climate targets to the circular economy. An Ellen MacArthur Foundation article on this year's COP26 identifies Chile as the only nation to tie climate commitments to circularity in its recently updated NDC.  

"This NDC update incorporates a new integration component encompassing the role of oceans, circular economy, forests, peat bogs and ecosystems, as elements that holistically contribute to facing both the causes and the effects and impacts of climate change. This is an effort to advance towards an integrated and synergistic vision in the design and implementation of climate action in Chile," the document reads.  

So why aren't more countries taking this type of holistic approach to climate change as we race to reach the goals set out over 6 years ago? One reason other nations aren’t following Chile’s lead may be the complexities involved in adopting circular approaches, which in some cases require a complete redesign of existing systems. In contrast, energy targets are conditions we can apply to existing systems without having to change the structures of the global economy.  

"Some 45 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from how we produce and consume products and food; they come from industry, agriculture, and land use changes," Carmen Valache-Altinel, Climate Change Project and Communications Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, writes.  

"Often called hard-to-abate emissions because of the difficulty in addressing them, they require an overhaul of our economy to be tackled at source ... To address them, we need to go upstream at the source of emissions to design waste and pollution out of our economy altogether, to keep materials in use, and to regenerate natural systems."

At the ACE Hub, we believe the circular economy is a critical component to addressing climate change and the challenges it presents and thus should be garnering attention on the global stage that is COP26. Given this is unlikely, we are organising the next best thing.  

In the lead up to the conference we are bringing experts together to explore the link between climate change and the circular economy. The panel discussion will cover the latest circular economy and climate research, the key drivers of change for governments and hopes for this year's COP26 conference. Watch this space for more details on the event and to register to join the discussion.  

For more on COP26, head here.  

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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