To fulfil the Paris Agreement we need a circular economy

Circular Economy on Medium

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Why renewable energy and efficiency alone won’t cut it

By James Woolven, Editor, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Five years ago, the world’s nations gathered in Le Bourget, near Paris, to discuss, draft, and adopt what has since become known as the Paris Agreement. The document, which has been signed by 196 countries to date, became the first global consensus on the need to address the devastating impacts of climate change. It commits its signatories to containing global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, a feat that requires tremendous collaboration.

So where are we now, five years down the line?

Some 192 countries around the world, the emitters of 96% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, have submitted plans (called nationally determined contributions or NDCs) to reduce their emissions. Meanwhile, as the evidence of the cost of inaction mounts, local governments, businesses, and the financial sector are also mobilising. In less than a year, and despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of net-zero pledges from cities, regions, and companies roughly doubled to more than 2,500 by October 2020.

In the second half of 2020 alone, China pledged to go net zero by 2060 and to put its emissions on a downward trend starting in 2030; the incoming Biden administration vowed to bring the US back to the Paris Agreement; the EU has continued to make progress towards passing its first-ever European Climate Law, which will make climate neutrality by 2050 mandatory across the bloc; and the UK Government recently vowed to cut emissions by 68% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

Global trends analysis shows dramatic increases in the production of renewable energy, in particular wind and solar energy, an increased uptake in energy efficiency in buildings and industry, and in the number of electric vehicles; with carbon capture, storage and utilisation, and green hydrogen being touted as the technologies that will help offset the industrial emissions that the other measures cannot tackle.

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Photo by Giulia Canaia on Unsplash

It all sounds positive, but while the groundwork for a net zero emissions future has been laid, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to increase and accrue. Before the government-imposed lockdowns of 2020, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was the highest it had been in over 800,000 years. We have already exceeded the threshold of 1 degree Celsius global warming compared to pre-industrial levels, which has brought about increasingly frequent extreme weather events that are wreaking havoc in communities and ecosystems the world over. Putting the recent climate plans and pledges into action is a matter of utmost urgency.

More importantly, most of these plans and pledges have focused on reducing the emissions from energy, but have largely ignored an important part of the equation: the emissions stemming from the production and consumption of goods and food.

With our existing technology, and that expected to be scalable by 2050, an optimal uptake of renewable energy and energy efficiency will address 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions — those from energy supply systems, energy consumption in buildings, and transport. The remaining emissions come from the way we make, use, and dispose of products, materials, and food; from industry, agriculture, and land use. Certain processes within these sectors are particularly powerful hotspots of greenhouse gas emissions: chemical processes to manufacture commodities like steel and concrete; high-heat processes; landfilling; incineration; deforestation; and land use change and agriculture. Tackling this remaining 45% of emissions requires a revision of how we design, make, and use products and materials, and the way we use land.

The maturity of the conversation around renewable energy and energy efficiency isn’t matched in these other areas — and that is a missed opportunity for governments and businesses alike to address climate change. We need to take a holistic approach and address all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which is where the circular economy comes in. Applying circular economy strategies for the five most common materials in our economy — cement, aluminium, steel, plastics, and food — can eliminate almost half of the remaining emissions from the production of goods, or 9.3 billion tonnes of CO2e by 2050, equivalent to all the global emissions from today’s transport. The pledges and progress being made at the moment present an opportunity to embed circular economy principles into climate action plans and thus complete the picture.

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Photo by Craig Melville on Unsplash

The circular economy is a much bigger idea than merely making incremental tweaks to the existing system. It offers a framework to transform the economic system to address the root causes of global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a growing consensus that circular economics would be the steering force behind a new system that provides long-term prosperity. The circular economy was on the agendas of some of the world’s largest businesses, including those responsible for 20% of the world’s plastic packaging, that have united behind the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s common vision for a circular economy for plastic, through the Global Commitment. Governments around the world were making steps to facilitate the transition through legislation, not least in the EU where the circular economy is one of the key elements of the European Green Deal and a new circular economy action plan has been adopted.

But rather than pushing the circular economy off the agenda, Covid-19 has made it more relevant than ever. By highlighting the fragility of our current system, the pandemic has reinforced the need to rethink our economic model. As well as providing a clear framework to help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, the circular economy can now provide a resilient economic recovery that can work in the long term, unlike any plan entrenched in the take-make-waste principles of the current linear economy. The circular economy can create greater resilience to shocks in industry and society — attributes that are valuable well beyond the current situation.

The circular economy offers an attractive path forward since it creates value and growth in ways that benefit customers, businesses, society, and the environment. It is a systems solution framework with three principles, driven by design and innovation: eliminate waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

For example, keeping materials in use in construction can significantly reduce the climate impact of this sector. The processing of recycled aggregates, for example, generates 40% less greenhouse gas emissions than that of virgin aggregates. In the transport sector, multimodal mobility systems, if also designed for durability, reduce global CO2 emissions by 70% or 0.4 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2040. In the food system, applying circular economy principles could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 4.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, comparable to taking nearly all the 1 billion cars in the world off the road permanently.

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Photo by YIFEI CHEN on Unsplash

Now could be a crucial moment to embed circular economy principles in government NDCs. Because of the pandemic, the role of governments and public bodies has grown at an unprecedented rate — at least in times of peace. The sheer scale of government spending and the visibility of the state in taking control of many aspects of public life could result in broader public acceptance of government intervention. Coupled with an increased public awareness of the threat of climate change, the result may be governments having both the power and the political will to dramatically shift our global trajectory on climate.

This could mean that international accords like the Paris Agreement hold more weight than ever before. Therefore, in order to tackle climate change in a holistic way and act not only on the energy transition and efficiency side, but to look at the whole spectrum of emissions, it is time to put the circular economy at the heart of the efforts to mitigate climate change.

The five-year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement couldn’t come at a more pivotal point in recent history. With Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out, and nations around the world clamouring to recover from the pandemic’s economic shock, the time is ripe for a system rethink. The old ways of doing business — that rely on extraction, waste, pollution, and habitat loss — have had their time. Can the shift to a low-carbon circular economy, which has steadily been building momentum in recent years, be accelerated into a full-blown system overhaul? With the reset button firmly pushed on the global economy, now could be our chance to turn things around, to lay the foundations for a new and better system that can work in the long term — one that builds, rather than depletes, natural capital.

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Portland awards itself a participation trophy for climate

Portland is utterly failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, but not to worry, its ticking lots of boxes in its bureaucratic check-list.
The city walks away from its 2015 Climate Action Plan after an increase in greenhouse gases, but promises to do better (and more equitably) in the future.
Portland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 440,000 tons per year, instead of decreasing as called for in its 2015 plan.
Increased driving due to cheap gas has wiped out all the city’s climate progress in other sectors in the past five years.
We’re frequently told that when it comes to dealing with climate change, if our national government doesn’t step up (and it hasn’t under the current administration), not to worry, because the nation’s cities, and the mayors who lead them are as green as can be.
To be sure, mayors have loudly proclaimed their commitments to (future) greenhouse gas reductions, and fealty to the Paris Climate Accords, but rhetoric and pledges are one thing, and lower rates of carbon emissions are another. While plans are nice, we really need to be focusing on the results that the plans are producing.
When it comes to Portland, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of North American climate change cities, the results are disappointing, and the explanations are, at best, disingenuous.
Portland was one of the first cities in the US, to adopt and explicit grenehouse gas reduction goal in 1993.  The city’s website boasts:

Portland is tackling climate change head on. We were the first US city to adopt a carbon reduction strategy in 1993, and our cutting-edge Climate Action Plan put us on a path to reducing emissions by 80% in 2050.

Noble and far sighted, to be sure, but a quarter of a century later, how is the city doing in actually, you know, reducing greenhouse gases?
The answer to that question is supposed to be spelled out in a progress report on the the city’s adopted 2015 Climate Action Plan. The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability last month published “final” report card on the city’s efforts. But rather than being an honest report card, the document amounts to the bureaucratic equivalent of a third-grade participation trophy. The city congratulates itself for its efforts, but the true test of progress, a reduction measured in tons of carbon emissions, shows the plan has been a failure.

The  city’s “Final Progress Report” almost completely glosses over the failure to cut emissions modestly in the past five years, and now the City has quickly moved on to a much more ambitious interim goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels (up from 40 percent), in its new Climate Emergency Declaration.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter:  The key element on the plan is reducing emissions.  Here’s the report’s summary of our progress:

The 2018 data also shows that carbon reductions have started to plateau and that current emissions trends are not sufficient to meet the needed reduction targets that need to be achieved. To achieve the goal of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 as identified by climate science, local emissions must be reduced by an additional 31% in the next 10 years. This is a daunting task.

Actually, the report doesn’t present the actual emissions data; instead, it links to another report (the September 2019 report we wrote about here) that has the  data, and that report includes data only through 2017.
A checklist isn’t a climate strategy
The bulk of the city’s self-congratulatory report card consists of describing a laundry list of 247 actions that were mentioned in the previous climate action plan, and briefly rating each as either complete, on track or “facing obstacles.  The actions include sweeping and important policies that would make a big difference (like Item 1H: carbon pricing, which is “facing obstacles), and administrivia, like planning for actions with minimal benefits (“Item 6B: explore options intelligent transportation system, complete).  Nothing in the report calculates or categorizes the impact of any of these individual actions on the region’s greenhouse gas reduction progress (or lack thereof).
Wow! 77% of 247 Actions are on track: But the one indicator that matters—carbon emissions—is going in the wrong direction. (Portland Climate Action Plan Report, 2020).
Put another way:  If you successfully implemented all or most of your checklist actions, and you’re not making progress on reducing GHG, then something is fundamentally wrong with your plan.
Plans have to be accountable, not just for endless checklists of busy-work tasks, but actually achieving measurable results. Ironically, the plan itself calls for more measurability, but as noted above, it simply failed to report the annual data showing that by the CAP’s own metrics, that its failing.
It’s the equivalent of a grade-school participation trophy:  The City and County laud themselves for implementing about three-quarters of their 250 checklist items, but gloss over the fact that greenhouse gases, particularly from transportation are rising.
In 2013, the base year for statistics used in preparing the 2015 Climate Action Plan, Multnomah County’s total emissions were estimated at 7,260,000 tons.  According to the latest climate inventory (linked to, but not actually quoted in the progress report), the level of emissions in 2017 (the latest year for which data is available), were 7,702,000 tons. (We dig into the detail of these estimates below). Thus, Portland’s  total GHG are higher in 2017 than in 2013 according to the city’s own numbers, i.e. since Portland adopted the 2015 plan we’ve made zero (actually negative) progress.  The report spins this as “plateauing” but we all know that unless we make steady progress in reducing GHG, the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the years ahead.  Nobody would call having your 8th grader still reading at the 3rd grade level five years later as “plateauing.”
Mission unaccomplished
Its clear from the tone of the report card, that the City is simply walking away from its 2015 plan–even though its substantive goals haven’t been accomplished.  The title of the report is “Final Progress Report.”  All of the references to the plan are in the past tense, for example:

The Climate Action Plan was an important roadmap over the last five years to help ensure the City and County continued their progress toward carbon reduction goals. The 2015 Climate Action Plan broke important new ground by including several important elements:
(Report, page 65).

City officials promise accountability, but if they simply walk away from plans after five years, without seriously acknowledging their failure, and analyzing the reasons for that failure, and begin by writing a new plan, de novo, as the city now proposes, there is no accountability. Moreover, the city’s “final report” disappears the few bits of serious number-crunching that were done in the 2015 plan, showing that we’d need to dramatically reduce vehicle miles of car travel in order to achieve our carbon goals.
The 2015 plan was explicit about what would be needed.  It laid out a carbon budget that did the math on what we would have to do to reach our goals. Specifically:

For example, by 2030 emissions from the building energy and transportation sector must be approximately 40 percent below 1990 levels (see Table 1). In 2050, residents must be able to meet all of their needs while using 62 percent less electricity and driving 64 percent fewer miles than they do today (see Table 2). (This also assumes a shift to cleaner electricity sources and more efficient vehicles.)
Climate Action Plan, 2015, page 19

In place of tangible, measurable indicators of progress toward our stated goal, the City’s climate emergency declaration offers  vague exhortations about future process.
As they walk away from the 2015 plan, there’s as yet  no plan to take its place.  There are vague statements about process going forward, descriptions of how the city might do something else, but few if any actual policies.  The City’s Climate Emergency Resolution directs BPS, by the fall of this year to “co-convene a process” to “identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared solution.”

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that no later than Fall 2020, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is directed to work closely with other City bureaus, Multnomah County, frontline communities, and youth-led organizations to establish and co-convene a new and ongoing climate justice initiative that will provide a framework for government and community to work together as equal partners to identify and implement strategies that will advance a shared vision for climate justice and action;

But this new process and the plan it produces, and its specifics are in the future.  For now the city has simply closed the book on the 2015 plan, and awarded itself a participation trophy for having done so.
Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan has been an abject failure
Its important to look in detail at the data on carbon emissions in Portland for the past decade. They show that the city’s climate change efforts, so far, have failed.  In the three years prior to the adoption of the Climate Action Plan (2010 through 2013), the city managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tons per year; In the four years between the plan’s baseline and the latest available data, emissions have increased by 110,000 tons per year. In 2013, Portland GHG’s were 7.26 million tons; in 2017, they were 7.7 million tons, an annual increase of 1.5 percent per year, at a time the Climate Action Plan called for an annual reduction of 1.4 percent per year.
In the most basic sense, more greenhouse gas emissions mean your plan isn’t working. The plan characterizes this whopping failure as a “plateauing.”
It also conceals the failure by constantly referring to a 1990 baseline, rather than looking a recent trends (i.e. the past two, five or ten years).  In essence, the plan takes credit for emission reductions that happened in the two decades years before the 2015 plan was adopted (i.e. 1990 to 2010), and simply ignores the fact that Portland’s GHG are now going in the wrong direction.
Plateauing is a tacit admission of failure for a plan that depends on large and consistent reductions in emissions.  But, to be clear, emissions haven’t plateaued:  Portland’s total greenhouse gas emissions as calculated by the city, have risen by 440,000 tons between the CAP baseline year (2013) and the latest year for which data are available (2017).
It’s telling that the report includes no chart showing the needed path of emission reductions between now and 2030 or 2050.  Such charts are a staple of climate plans, including the 2015 CAP, which laid out this roadmap for GHG reductions:
The path laid out in Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan
If they’d replicated this chart, with data showing actual progress from 2013 to 2017, and showing their new, much more aggressive goal, it would look like this.
The 2015 Climate Action Plan, the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration, and Reality
On this chart, the blue line shows actual emissions (as reported by the city), the 2015 plan (the orange line) and the 2020 Climate Emergency Goal (green line).  By 2017, in order to be on a path to achieving its 2030 goal, the City needed to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent below their 1990 levels; instead, as we’ve noted greenhouse gases rose, and were at 15 percent below 1990 levels.  The fact that the blue line is above the orange line shows the city isn’t meeting its previous goal.
And its worth noting just how much more ambitious the new goal of cutting emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 (and to zero net emissions by 2050) is.  The much steeper slope of the green line (the new climate emergency goal) implies a vastly bigger lift than the previous (2015) plan, the orange line. Meeting the 2030 goal will require more than twice as much annual reduction (110,000 tons vs 220,000 tons), each year, from now through 2030. The 2015 plan required that the City reduce its emissions by about 1.7 percent per year over 17 years to reach its goal of a 40 percent reduction; its new climate emergency declaration requires a 4.1 percent annual emissions reduction over the next decade to reach its higher 50 percent objective.
The city has raised the bar at exactly the time that its shown that its current efforts simply aren’t working. And unlike the 2015 plan, there’s no detailed calculation of how we’ll achieve this vastly greater level of emissions reductions. Recall that the 2015 plan said we’d need to cut driving in half to achieve a more modest goal over a longer period of time. If the city is serious about achieving this goal, as opposed to just posturing, its essential that they show how the goal can be reached. They haven’t.
What’s needed:  A laser like focus on reducing GHG from driving
The startling omission from the report is the fact that it’s been the increase in driving over the past five years that’s undercut our progress toward our stated climate change goals. The report neatly glosses over the fact that emissions, especially from transportation, are rising.  It presents one chart showing GHG in 2000 and in 2018 (the year of the latest GHG inventory) and omits data for individual years.

The City’s report  card makes it look as if very little has happened—the transportation emissions have gone up, and just a little  Leaving out the annual data conceals a much bleaker reality:  In the past five years, Portland has recorded huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions.  Here are the annual data from the independent, nationally-normed estimates prepared as part of the DARTE GHG inventory, showing the  Portland area’s greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. (These data are for the entire metropolitan area).

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, the Portland made good progress until 2013, when increased driving due to cheaper fuel costs produced a surge in vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions. Portland’s carbon emissions increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually between 2013 and 2018, more than wiping out all the other progress made in reducing greenhouse gases in other sectors.
Portland’s won’t make progress in reducing greenhouse gases until it finds a way to reduce vehicle miles traveled.  And it will need to reduce them substantially. As noted above, when it wrote the 2015 plan, the city did the math to figure out how big a reduction in driving would be needed.  Then, when transportation emissions were lower (and the city’s climate goals less aggressive) the city’s calculations showed we’d need a 62 percent decline in VMT. Our backsliding combined with a tougher goal means we’ll need to reduce driving even more to achieve the objective laid out in the Climate Emergency Declaration.
Dealing with climate change is a serious existential threat to humanity. Its good that the city is willing to acknowledge this, and that it has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gases. This will be a challenging task, and it is not made easier by presenting reports that conceal fundamental failures to move forward, that hide key data and analysis that tell us where we really are, and which avoid accountability for failing to make meaningful progress toward our stated goals.