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Nine ways a circular economy can help avert the climate crisis

New research ‘Circular Economy as a Climate Strategy’ outlines current understanding of how a circular economy can help avert the climate crisis. It outlines nine calls-to-action decision makers and researchers can take to maximise circular economy benefits in order to help limit warming to 1.5 ̊C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.


How can a circular economy help
avert the climate crisis?

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Half the global emissions come from the extraction and processing of materials.

Circular economy strategies reduce the demand for raw materials and new products, therefore reducing emissions from production. While recycling is often the first circular economy strategy thought of, it is the more ‘upstream’ strategies, such as shifting consumption patterns and material-efficient product design that will deliver the highest emission reduction potential.

Global greenhouse gas emissions per sector in 2019.

Industry 34% Agriculture, food and land 22% Energy use by buildings 22% Energy use by transport 15% Other energy 13%

Source: IPCC 2022

The built environment, transport, and the food system offer the highest potential to reduce emissions through circular economy strategies.

Materials-related and operational energy use emissions by sector.

0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16

Sources: Built environment: Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction et al. 2019. Transport: IPCC 2022; Hertwich et al. 2019, with extrapolation by authors. Food system: IPCC 2019. Plastics:OECD 2022. Textiles: McKinsey and Global Fashion Agenda 2020. Electronics: Belkhir and Elmeligi 2018, with extrapolation by authors. Materials-related and operational energy use emissions by sector.

Supporting the clean energy transition

The transition to clean energy such as solar and wind power, and electric vehicles, is a prominent part of global climate action to reduce emissions.

Producing more wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles will require a much larger supply of minerals, potentially by a factor of 20 or more for lithium, cobalt, and nickel, and decommissioned clean energy equipment will soon become a fast-growing new waste stream, if not properly managed.

Circular economy strategies can support a more sustainable scaling of the clean energy transition by relieving material supply pressure, increasing supply chain resilience, preventing new waste challenges, accelerating the adoption of clean energy technologies, all while maximising climate benefits.

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Material-efficient product design and manufacturing.

For example, the development of low-cobalt or cobalt-free cathodes in electric vehicle batteries can reduce minerals, while reducing the socio-ecological costs and carbon footprint.

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Extending a product’s life.

As clean energy equipment is material and energy-intensive to manufacture, there is greater climate benefit to keep the equipment in use for longer through upgrade, repair, refurbish and remanufacture, than early replacement with newer technologies.

Adapting to climate change

Ninety percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by material resource extraction and processing. As we are already witnessing and experiencing the impact of the climate crisis, enhancing adaptation to climate change is as important as mitigation.

Circular economy strategies could slow down nature degradation by reducing the demand for virgin materials, decreasing pressure on natural ecosystems to provide adaptation benefits such as mangroves protecting against flooding or forests regulating temperatures.
hands holding soil
Regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and food production and better waste management can help increase flood resilience through better waste management.
A circular economy can also play a role in building resilience to climate shocks and stresses. Where the sharing economy could improve access to goods and services when needed and increasing reuse, repair, refurbishment and using local materials and regenerative agricultural practices, could improve country resilience to global supply chain shocks induced by increasingly volatile climate events.

What COP parties have
circular economy strategies
in their climate plans?

There has been increasing momentum to call on policy makers to include circular economy approaches in national climate plans. While the number of COP parties mentioning circular economy or equivalent strategies has increased from 2015 to 2022, many focus only on waste management and some of the largest emitters have not yet considered this approach. Where waste management has an important role to play in emissions reduction, more systemic strategies are needed to deliver the highest emission reduction potential.

Current COP parties with circular or equivalent strategies mentioned in national climate pledges.