circular economy

Scientists from two Swedish and one British institution argue that the concept of a circular economy and circular business models are flawed. They claim that the circular economy has diffused limits, unclear theoretical grounds, and that its implementation faces structural obstacles. The paper was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Circular economy is based on an ideological agenda dominated by technical and economic accounts. That brings uncertain contributions to sustainability and depoliticises sustainable growth.

Policy instruments are only suggested to promote circulation, rather than to obstruct the legacy of the linear economy. Furthermore linear technologies retain their market position despite their inefficiency, and circular innovations are hard to scale up.

With a management and technocentric bias driving the circular economy agenda, a growing body of research has criticised the absence of socio-cultural and political issues.

Their conclusion is that the circular economy is not even close to delivering the goals it claims to achieve. Circularity emerges instead as a theoretically, practically, and ideologically questionable notion. The paper concludes by proposing critical issues that need to be addressed if the circular economy and its business models are to open routes for more sustainable economic development.

We quote them in full:

The paper brings together the critiques addressed to the circular economy, with a focus on the European conception of the circular economy and corresponding circular business models.  Researchers in various academic fields bring forth the unaddressed assumptions, blind spots, tensions, contradictions, unthought-of consequences, and taken-for-granted advantages of a circular transition.

The purpose is to make it less easy to make ungrounded claims about the circular economy to bring actual issues raised by a transition to the circular economy and to be at the core of this transition.

Basic principles ignored

Praised by policy makers and many companies who have been instrumental in its recognition as a model for material and sustainable policies, the circular economy is also subject to many critiques in academic and professional circles. The systematic presentation of these critiques shows that despite their strong imaginary appeal, pleas for the circular economy tend to ignore basic principles of biophysics, for example, the tensions between biophysical limits and progress and growth. Therefore, using the circular economy as a buzzword for sustainable development is considered problematic.

Critiques see in the circular economy a reassuring discourse for policy makers about futures made of planned circularity, circular modernism, bottom-up sufficiency, and peer-to-peer circularity. However, despite the revolutionary language, the circular future is not mapped out. In the shadow remain unanswered questions of how to disrupt orthodox social institutions attached with modernity and the connections and dependencies these create.

Equally, wider sustainability concerns such as care or gender equality are lacking, and so too are the impacts of the circular economy that can be beneficial for some but come at a cost to others.

Radical shift is essential

If the desire is for an equitable and truly sustainable economy that is circular, the critiques stress that a radical shift is essential to confront conventional neoliberal governance regimes. There is a danger to the myths surrounding the circular economy because if they become normalized the space for critical reflection will decrease.

Examples include the “risk of increased polarization between city and country and that the countryside is left out with poorer access to welfare services as a result” and the lack of a global approach encouraging neo-colonialism by either side stepping developing countries, not giving agency to people to problems outside of the Global North, or engaging with the informal sectors.

To put it briefly, the circular economy stands as a discourse that focuses on the economy, excludes social dimensions, and simplifies its environmental consequences.

These critiques are more than simply denouncing flaws in a fashionable concept. They also point at the need for questioning how the circular economy is currently conceived, consented, and implemented. The presentation of the critiques above shows there is a need for a renewed, enlarged, and transdisciplinary research agenda on the circular economy in order to support the policy process.

In need of coherence

Each area of the critiques above points at an issue in need of research, policy, and managerial attention. And as academics, let us conclude with a plea for coherence and transdisciplinarity.

Before the circular economy becomes mainstream and moves beyond sustainability and circular economy professionals, there is clearly a need for conceptual coherence about definitions, plans, implementations, and modes of evaluation, because without coherence the expansion of new knowledge could be obstructed by deadlocked debates or can collapse entirely.

Given the scope, speed, and transformation the circular economy agenda is attempting to address, research also needs to come out of disciplinary silos, otherwise solutions will engender weak circularity premised on notions of no limits, secondary resources complementing primary supplies, and governments handing over responsibility to businesses and consumers.

The researchers believe that it is time for producers and the state to reclaim the idea of circularity and to create “a closed, material loop limited in size and space, based on the principle of fair distribution of resources”.

Modest, concrete, inclusive, accountable

Drawing on the critiques listed above, a pathway toward circularity would be a circular economy that is modest, not a panacea but an actual solution to actual problems; concrete, in the sense of being clear about which kind of circularity it sets up and the goal conflicts that it entails; inclusive, in that it takes energy, people, and waste on a global scale into consideration; and transparent, in the sense of being accountable for its achievements and shortcomings, not the least when it comes to economic, social, and environmental changes.

Otherwise, the circular economy risks turning into a hypothetico-normative (but self-serving) utopia that derails actual and well-intended efforts to reorganise production, consumption, and more generally material flows in ways that are more respectful of planetary boundaries and that work in favour of sustainability.

Photo by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Develop on Foter

ipcc leaks

Juan Bordera Romá reports about how recent IPCC leaks were passed on to him, and what it actually means. He is a screenwriter and journalist and a degrowth activist in Extinction Rebellion and the Transition Network.

Somewhat by chance and because I was working in the right place at the right time, I was one of the journalists who exclusively leaked the contents of one of the most important reports in recent years. This is the report by Working Group 3 of the UN organization – the IPCC – which is in charge of designing proposals to mitigate the effects of climate chaos. Both those already caused and those yet to come. The conclusions drawn from what has happened so far and from the report itself are not easy to digest. And precisely because of this, much less is being done than what is essential.

Let’s start by recalling that there was a leak prior to ours, of the report from the Working Group 3 – the one in charge of measuring the impacts – made by Agence France-Presse (AFP) in June of this year. I don’t know where the leak came from and what it contained, but the headline: “Life on Earth can recover from major climate change. Humanity cannot”, went around the world and we at Fastlove analysed it here.

These IPCC leaks already revealed that there was a certain nervousness in the scientific community, and a desire to skip the step of review and modification by governments of the summaries of the reports (yes, incredible as it may seem, governments can propose changes to scientists and must unanimously approve the final summary of each working group). Moreover, these summaries are what the absolute majority of journalists read, and they are the basis for the subsequent information that is disseminated, as the reports are several thousand pages long each. Although the scientific work is unimpeachable, this makes it even more difficult for the more daring positions to appear.

Then, a month and a half after the first IPCC leaks – on 6 August – just 3 days before the first part of the report was officially published (Working Group I – in charge of giving science evidence), a very special piece of content reached the Extinction Rebellion Spain movement, of which I am a member. We are talking about the leaked summary of Working Group 3, the mitigation proposals.

Obviously this part of the report is very important, as it has to dive into proposing paths that are passable to avoid the worst results of the climate chaos we have already unleashed.

And while sometimes they are not as bold as the situation requires – even with the summer of extreme events we are experiencing – on this occasion there are parts of the report that have challenged the usual somewhat tepid logic of previous reports.

So, in short, what does the scientific community propose?

Based on the previous work of more than 14.000 different studies, very briefly their conclusions are clear:

  • “Coal and gas plants should be shut down within 9 to 12 years”.
  • “Total emissions need to peak in 2025 and fall rapidly from there to net zero between 2050 and 2075”.
  • All these plans are based on technologies (carbon capture and sequestration, and carbon dioxide removal – CCS and CDR) that are far from being developed. Therefore, they are still relying on some sort of “technological miracle”. This is not very scientific, to be honest.
  • “In scenarios with reduced energy demand, the mitigation challenges are significantly reduced, with less reliance on CO2 removal (CDR), less pressure on land and lower carbon prices. These scenarios do not imply a decrease in welfare, but a provision of better services.” This is literally an adaptation scenario to the economic theory that advocates that it is possible to live well with less. Degrowth.
  • Different scenarios are expected: Global warming associated with these different emissions scenarios ranges from less than 1.5°C to more than 5°C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. We are at 1.1°C and are already seeing increasingly catastrophic consequences of climate destabilisation. Avoiding exceeding 1.5°C is almost impossible to achieve. But every tenth of a degree counts.
  • Fighting energy poverty and climate change are not incompatible. This is because the biggest emitters are the richest ones: the richest 10% emit ten times more than the poorest 10%.

For all the above reasons, the content of the exclusive has gone around the world.

We first published it in the Spanish magazine CTXT, from there it reached The Guardian in the UKthe Spiegel in GermanyCNBC in the US and Yale University, as well as IndiaChinaIndonesiaBrazil and many other countries.

As if this were not enough, the source of the leak (a group of scientist-activists, Scientist Rebellion) was so happy with the work that they passed us more material (the entire chapter 1 of the report) and with it we were able to produce another article in CTXT, co-written with some of the best experts in our country on the issue, and which has even been translated into English in the prestigious Monthly Review. Well, now that the maelstrom of work and unleashed emotions has passed, and the content has settled, I am going to try to summarise how complex I see this issue.

Embracing degrowth can be key to managing climate chaos, and capitalism as we understand it is unsustainable.

These are the two main conclusions. And the fact that they are reflected in a report that tends to be more conservative than daring says a lot about the seriousness of the situation.

The first thing I would like to do is to thank the enormous team effort that has made it possible for this to get this far. Secondly, I would like to point out that there are many barriers in the media. Some – most of the television channels – have not even deigned to mention the leak. They dare not speak clearly about the enormous problem and how little is being done to solve it. And this barrier is key. If it is not told, it does not exist. And it is impossible to do what needs to be done.

You may be wondering: how huge is the climate problem? Well, I remember the headline of the first leak:

“Life on Earth can recover from major climate change by evolving new species and creating new ecosystems. Humanity cannot”.

Extinctions seem to us to be a thing of the past and could never affect us, the all-powerful and omnipotent being that calls itself “Sapiens Sapiens”, while destroying its own life support. But there are many facts that confirm that this is not the case. The current rate of species extinction is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average of the last ten million years. And it is accelerating. Dangerously close to the rate of the previous 5 great mass extinctions. Add to this runaway climate change that may take on an irreversible inertia for humans. It is not serious. It is a matter of life and death.

Extinctions are usually caused by an abrupt change in some factor that destabilises the quasi-magical balance of life on Earth. In the past they have been triggered by a series of volcanic mega-eruptions or a meteorite impact. And this sixth mass extinction is happening because of us. Yes, us. We are the meteorite now. At least the unbridled economic system we have built.

This story was first published on resilience.org

electric cars ford mustang

Electric cars and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions during their production than standard vehicles. That sheds a different light on the speedy transition to electrical transportation that climate activists advocate.

Electric and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions during their production but are still greener overall, according to a new report. A new report by Ricardo highlights the increasing importance of accounting for whole life carbon emissions to compare the greenhouse gas emissions of low carbon vehicles.

Some of the CO2 savings made during the use of low carbon vehicles are offset by increased emissions caused during their production, and to a lesser extent disposal. However, overall electric and hybrid vehicles still have lower carbon footprints than normal cars.

For example, a typical medium sized family car will create around 24 tonnes of CO2 during its life cycle, while an electric vehicle (EV) will produce around 18 tonnes over its life. For a battery EV, 46% of its total carbon footprint is generated at the factory, before it has travelled a single mile. For a conventional cars that is 26%.

Perverse effect: electric cars co2 emissions first go up

However, an accelerated replacement of fossil fuel propelled cars by electric, may lead to a perverse effect. In stead of reducing CO2 emissions in the short term, they will increase. Producing an electric vehicle emits almost twice as much greenhouse gas as a conventional one. It takes several years, depending from the annual mileage, to break even.

The calculation is simple: the extra emissions from production have to be compensated by the savings when operating the vehicle.

But there are complications. When a new car is sold, the old one usually enters the used car market and remains in use. At the end of the line some 5% of cars are scrapped annually, much less than new car production. And new conventional cars emit considerably less during operation than older ones, which decreases the lifetime footprint advantage further. (The carbon footprint of an electric car should be compared to a new, state-of-the-art conventional car of the same size, which it actually replaces. But electric replacements also tend to be larger than the cars they replace.)

On average, we look at some 4 tonnes of extra co2 per electric car produced, which has to be offset by 0.5 tonne annually of prevented emissions. According to these figures it would take some 8 years to break even. (Given electric cars run on 100% renewable energy)

What to do?

The automotive industry is taking steps to address this issue of production emissions- the recent announcement by Toyota of a solar array to provide electricity to power the hybrid Auris production facility and wind power at the Nissan Leaf plant are excellent examples of this.

But that will be far too little too late to result in short term effects. After all, we aim at 2030 for first results. No electric car sold today will contribute to those under the present conditions.

A key factor is car ownership. Reducing car ownership – especially in cities – and replacing it by electric car sharing, would result in a much more effective reduction of co2 emissions in the short term. It will reduce the need for new car production and take more cars out of circulation. And it will shift from fossil miles to electric miles much faster.

Of course this is a somewhat radical idea. But the central question is not how to sell as many electric cars as possible, it is how to reduce emissions and save the climate. That does take radical solutions to achieve it. The report does not address that. We do.

The report “Determining the environmental impacts of conventional and alternatively fuelled vehicles through LCA” and its associated documents are available for download from at DG Climate Action’s web pages.

 

Chief Sustainability Officer

The perspective that meaningful and credible sustainability reporting is an essential requirement for any responsible business is increasingly becoming accepted, by many companies around world. Yet reporting cannot take place in isolation. Sustainability is a critical aspect of business strategy and operational decision-making, which needs to be embedded in the corporate DNA through a transformative process.

That process takes time and requires strong leadership at the C-suite level, which has led to  the emergence of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO). Less than two decades ago, a CSO was a novelty. The first-known CSO appointment was Linda Fisher at Dupont in 2004. By 2011, there were 29 CSOs in publicly traded companies in the USA – and in 2020, Fortune 500 companies hired more CSOs than in the previous three years combined.

Cognizant of the crucial role of CSOs in accelerating business action on sustainability, in 2020 the Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative launched the Sustainable 30 Group. Comprised of CSOs from some of the world’s most influential companies, its aim is to ‘collaborate on initiatives and actions to help protect and drive sustainable stakeholder value’.

Getting to grips with ESG risks

The role of the CSO covers a widening set of mandates and duties amid the multiple sustainability challenges that confront organizations. Deloitte’s recent report, The Future of the Chief Sustainability Officer, highlights how changes in the corporate’s external environment is intensifying scrutiny from stakeholders, fuelling an ever-greater focus on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) risks.

Despite these realities, which have only been heightened by the business resilience pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for a CSO is still yet to be embraced evenly by all major corporations. Some are still at an earlier stage in determining why and how to integrate sustainability, as enabled by transparency, into their business functions and processes.

Against this backdrop, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), provider of the world’s most widely used and trusted sustainability reporting standards, held a webinar in July under the theme ‘do companies need a Chief Sustainability Officer?’. Unsurprisingly, the findings of the session were an unequivocal ‘yes’. This was the first instalment of a seven-part Building Leadership for Sustainable Business expert series, which runs until July 2022. Next up will be an event in September on aligning sustainability and risk management.

Through up-close and personal discussions with six distinguished CSOs and sustainability champions in Southeast Asia, the webinar illuminated why a CSO is becoming indispensable, what their core competencies, skills and leadership attributes are, and how the CSO will be crucial to the implementation of successful business strategies in future.

Competencies for CSO leadership

Herry Cho, Managing Director and Head of Sustainability and Sustainable Finance with the Singapore Exchange (SGX), debunked the myth that advancing sustainability comes at the expense of profitability.  According to Cho, the financial and non-financial performance and impacts are “interwoven by ESG analysis” – and the CSO’s commercial mindset enables them to “add value to every function in the organization” – anticipating sustainability risks and opportunities that may impact the organization’s financial and strategic position.

The CSO challenges the traditional understanding of leadership, according to Yvonne Zhang, Deloitte Southeast Asia Sustainability Leader. As she puts it, the CSO’s leadership qualities can be set out as ‘C’ for ‘credibility’; ‘S’ for ‘sense-making’ and ‘O’ for ‘orchestration’. As such, the CSO has a critical role helping companies to understand what is happening outside the organization, in support of decisions that “embraces disruption, innovation, and stewardship… The multifold tasks and hybrid roles can push a CSO to live both in the present and anticipate the future”.

Esther An – CSO for City Developments Limited (CDL) in Singapore – reflected on key learnings from her CSR and sustainability journey over the past 20 years. In her view, a CSO should be someone who cares about the environment and the community at large;  is committed to the cause of doing good and doing well; and creative and communicative in mapping out a sustainability centric strategy that has impact.

Darian McBain, Global Director, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability of Thai Union, emphasized that passion drives the CSO to be both a fighter and a collaborator. As she puts it, the CSO is not afraid to push something because it is the right thing to do, working with people across and outside the organization to make change happen. Similarly, Dr Simon Lord – an independent sustainability advisor, scientist and former CSO of Sime Darby Plantation – added that purpose and performance are of equal import to the CSO. Without a clear sense of purpose, one cannot perform well, and performance reinforces one’s purpose.

At the outset, embedding sustainability in the organization may entail some costs. However, according to Ignacio Carmelo Sison, Chief Corporate Officer of Del Monte Pacific, “In the long run the cost of investing in sustainability is less than the cost of not investing in it. Disruption, in its negative sense, would be a greater cost – be it environmental, social or operational. Sustainability is essentially the opposite of disruption. Companies, therefore, need to invest in the present to sustain the future.” This is the essence of sustainability and the CSO has a key role to work with stakeholders to future-proof the organization.

Where next on the CSO journey?

Companies cannot survive in an increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain world without putting sustainability at the core of their operations. Yet accessing the right people with the right sustainability skillset is not easy. As covered in analysis by GreenBiz this month, PwC intends to create 100,000 ESG jobs by 2026, reflective of the current situation whereby demand for sustainability professionals is far outstripping supply.

The mandate of the CSO can be expected to continue to evolve, while a comprehensive understanding of sustainability performance is likely to be a growing requirement for many other senior roles – be they Chief Financial Officer, Chief Risk Officer, and all the way up to CEO. Indeed, the ideal situation will see a CSO as unnecessary, with sustainability effectively integrated throughout the company’s operations, practices, products and services.

Until that day comes, the CSO is here to stay. Bringing vision, passion and purpose to the leadership team, they will be at the forefront of shaping the organizational transformation that is still needed to achieve a sustainable and successful future.

Dr. Allinnettes Adigue is Head of the GRI ASEAN Regional Hub in Singapore.