Taking global action on circular economy: it's time

By Lucy Jones  January 28th, 2022

This year's Circularity Gap Report charts the actions we need to take now to transition the global economy and mitigate climate change.

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It's time. This is the simple message at the core of the 2022 Circularity Gap Report (CGR). We must act on circular economy, and we must do it now. The fifth edition of the annual CGR builds on previous editions of the report to offer tangible circular solutions for businesses, cities and nations.  

"This edition draws on five years of knowledge to show the power of the circular economy to equitably fulfil our global needs and wants, but with radically fewer materials and emissions. There is no time to lose," the report states.   

Read on for a summary of the report's key findings and, more importantly, to learn how you can enact circular change in your own network or community.   

The circular transition is stuck in reverse.   

Circle Economy launched the Gap Report in 2018 as a means of tracking global progress towards circularity. The first report showed the world's economy was 9.1 per cent circular. Two years later, this figure had dropped to only 8.6 per cent. The remaining 91.4 per cent of the stuff we use is stuck in a wasteful, linear system.   

And we use a lot of stuff — over 100 billion tonnes of materials are extracted and used each year, far exceeding our planet's healthy boundaries. The CGR 2022 report argues urgent action is required to accelerate progress towards a circular economy if we are to remain within these boundaries and create a socially just and ecologically safe space.  

The climate impact of our stuff is getting worse, not better.  

Between the first Gap Report and the most recent iteration two major international climate conferences were held: COP21 in Paris and COP26 in Glasgow. In the time that elapsed between these conferences, humans consumed more than half a trillion tonnes of virgin materials — minerals, oils, fossil fuels and biomass*. This level of material extraction is 70 per cent more than what the earth can handle. In other words, we are taking 70 per cent more resources from the earth than what it is able to regenerate.   

And the long-term picture is even more concerning. In the past 50 years, global material use has quadrupled and now outpaces population growth. Without changing our current material use patterns, resource extraction is projected to reach between 170 and 184 billion tonnes by 2050. As the demand for new materials grows so too does waste and its associated impacts of pollution, biodiversity loss and global warming.

*You can view a detailed material x-ray on page 22 of the report.

We won't meet climate targets without changing these patterns of consumption. 

Recent climate change research shows time is running out. If we don't take decisive action in the next decade, we will not be able to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. Climate pledges, such as the 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs) set under the Paris Agreement, are important but will be insufficient to limit global temperature rise to safe levels in isolation. Under existing NDCs, the world is on track to hit 2.4 degrees this century (even with additional pledges made at COP26 accounted for).   

Climate pledges alone are not enough, but coupling these with circular solutions can help close the emissions gap and keep global temperature rise down. The 2021 Gap Report found combining NDCs with circular economy strategies could lower warming to 1.75 degrees. This is due to the massive footprint of materials handling and use, which account for 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The report suggests implementing circular strategies across three key sectors — housing, mobility and nutrition — could reduce global GHGs by 39 per cent and virgin resource use by 28 per cent.  

Despite the obvious benefits of a circular approach, this year's CGR points out only one-third of nations mention the circular economy at all in their climate pledges. Education is required to help decision-makers at all levels understand the benefits of this shift.   

Data, metrics and actionable solutions can support the transition.   

Data and metrics are needed to guide the circular transition. This is precisely the function of the Gap Report — to provide robust global data on material flows and clear metrics for measuring circularity that enable decision-makers to implement circular solutions. This year's report goes one step further by outlining 21 circular solutions for businesses, cities and nations. The 'interventions vortex' presented on page 30 of the report maps the potential impact of each solution on global temperature rise.   

"This set of 21 circular strategies can keep the planet on a 1.5-degree trajectory by cutting emissions by 22.8 billion tonnes beyond what is achieved by the updated climate commitments: a 39 per cent reduction from 2019 levels," the report asserts.  

The recommended interventions could also help close the circularity gap, bringing it from 8.6 to 17 per cent. The 21 solutions are presented on page 32 of the report alongside strategies for implementation and include: healthy diet, reduce travel, durable consumer products, circular healthcare, resource efficient housing.  

Across the suite of solutions there are takeaways for all readers, no matter their sector or sphere of influence. However, businesses, cities (i.e. state and local governments) and nations (i.e. federal governments) are identified as those responsible for taking action.   

Building an ecologically safe and socially just world.  

The ultimate goal of circularity is meeting the needs of all people within the means of the planet. The 2022 CGR suggests circular solutions can, and must, move nations towards a more ecologically safe and socially just world. To do so they must recognise the uneven distribution of resources across the world and take locally-tailored approaches to change.

The report finds no countries are currently operating in a safe and just space, showing just how big of a challenge lies ahead. By profiling countries into build, shift and grow categories, the report aims to help readers identify the specific solutions required in their local context.  

The report concludes with three recommendations for the next five years of the circular transition: 

  1. Data-driven tools to bring circularity to everyone. 

  2. Metrics to track the transition. 

  3. A social lens to ensure the transition is safe and just.   

Head here to read the 2022 Circularity Gap Report in full.  

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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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