We know that our current economic models and systems no longer make a lot of sense. Our linear extractive modes of operation have, over decades, wreaked havoc on the ecosystems. The linear paradigm of "produce-use-discard" has effectuated numerous environmental, climatic, and ecological crises that pose an existential threat unlike any other this planet has witnessed. For this colossal problem, focusing on plastic recycling alone to address the waste and material crises would be nothing short of futile. We need a paradigm shift where “the future of sourcing needs to be regenerative”.
If we acknowledge the need to transition to a regenerative economy and make regenerative design the norm, we will need motivated structural change. National and international policies play a pivotal role in accelerating this transition. Solar energy, for instance, has seen an unprecedented reduction of costs and widespread adoption thanks to technological innovation and, more importantly, clean energy policies and government subsidies.
Government decision-making can have monumental implications for the direction economies take. It is crucial, therefore, to ask how policies around the world are faring in their commitments to promote regenerative practices and where they can be better.
Economies worldwide need to turn circular to reduce non-renewable extraction. Source: Circularity Gap Report 2023
“Sustainability is an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations. It can also be expressed in the simple terms of an economic golden rule for the restorative economy: Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do.” -- Paul Hawken
The first Circularity Gap Report (CGR), created by Circle Economy, was released in 2018. The report revealed a startling fact – “the world was only 9.1% circular”. Since then, Circle Economy has published yearly reports on the progress and gaps in circular economy policies and regulations in participating nations (Austria, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom).
The executive summary of the 2023 CGR demonstrated, quite effectively, our failure to adopt regenerative economic principles. A fall of almost two percent to 7.2% in global circularity only shows we are marching aggressively in the wrong direction, defying decades of sound scientific and economic recommendations. We are extracting more virgin materials than ever before, with regenerative materials constituting only a quarter of total global material consumption.
What actions are specific countries taking to adopt regenerative economic principles?
Auckland, New Zealand, developed a comprehensive climate action plan for their community. A key action point in their climate plan was the transition to a resilient, regenerative and distributive economy. Among these points, policymakers offered a guiding definition of a regenerative economy that they wished to adopt and stressed the acceleration of “business pathways to resilient and regenerative business models”. They recognised that businesses, too, must change how they operate and what they prioritise.
In 2020, Amsterdam became the first city in the world to “commit to building a circular economy”. They released a 5-year strategy to reduce the number of raw materials the city used and the efficiency of using those raw materials. They also attempted to redefine the way they viewed materials and the value they derived from them. They used doughnut economics, the brainchild of the world’s leading economic expert on regenerative economic design to achieve this. A report by the Netherlands’s Environmental Assessment Agency (NEAA) pointed out that the city was still operating in an almost unchanged linear manner and that technological advancements have been concentrated primarily in the realm of recycling and increasing resource efficiency.
The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries by Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier Source: DEAL
Reimagining the economy and transitioning towards regenerative models is not a task only rich first-world countries have undertaken. Curaçao, a small island nation in the Caribbean Sea, created a doughnut economics task force in the presence of the country’s economic policymakers to create a compass and a roadmap for the restorative development of Curaçao. The hope was also that such developments would motivate similar policy decisions in other Caribbean island nations that are particularly vulnerable to the ecological and economic threat of climate change.
The USA’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) published a small report affirming their commitment to transition to a circular economy. While they acknowledge that a circular economy relies on more than just recycling, they continue to focus primarily on recycling, much like Amsterdam thus far, and reducing plastic waste entering the ocean in their circular economy policymaking. They claim to be developing other strategies to assess and mitigate the impact of material use, consumption, and disposal.
Australia, too, in its plans to transition to a circular economy, refers almost exclusively to regulating exports, improving recycling technology, recovering more waste, and reducing their food waste. Their plans say little to nothing about extractive processes fuelling a material forward economy, economic resilience, and the just distribution of recovered resources and benefits.
Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), an organisation policymaking, recognises that at the end of the day, policy “shapes the kinds of businesses that populate our economies”. We have a real opportunity to transform how we imagine economic structures, what we expect of them, and what purpose they serve in the ecological restoration of the planet.
Nurturing human nature, focusing on well-being rather than false growth, and perhaps most importantly, being truly regenerative are three among DEAL’s eight principles for a regenerative economy. Nurturing human nature requires both community action and participation. Regenerative city and economic design and planning must be a collaborative process where communities are owners of the ecological and material well-being of their communities and lands. Conventional economic measures (we’re looking at you, GDP) of prosperity, development, and growth must be abandoned, and the success of the regenerative economies must rest on the ecosystem, human, and non-human well-being.
The CGR report also gives three crucial recommendations that few countries have meaningfully incorporated. First, the emphasis on cutting down on non-renewables is excellent, but we also need to transform social development and create room for human fulfillment to be derived from immaterial things.
Second, our goal should not be achieving net zero but rather accomplishing net-positive results by replenishing and expanding the earth’s “life-support systems”. The final recommendation is essential and one that policymakers should pay special attention to. There is no shortage of material wealth, but our distribution of this wealth is disproportionately skewed in favour of those who continue to benefit from colonial power.
In the end, the term ‘circularity’ may just be one way to make us aware that we need a more encompassing, integrated and restorative sustainability path that includes people as much as technology and nature.” -- Michiel Schwarz
Various countries and communities have focused on reducing their consumption of raw materials. This is no easy political and economic commitment, especially in an increasingly electrified world where access to certain minerals determines one’s ability to adopt clean technology. While the NEAA criticised Amsterdam for the negligible reduction in material consumption and use, it was right in noting that “certain raw materials are more relevant than others”.
After all, the vision of true circularity can only be actualised when raw materials in an economy are sourced from biotic resources. Moreover, regenerative design must be as local an effort as possible. We must come together as communities and harness the skills and knowledge that have shaped our material relationship with the planet before the start of the Anthropocene.
The Circularity Gap Report, although alarming, should only inspire us! We can meet all our needs with 70% of the resources we currently use. This means that the future is quite bright if we collectively demand a just and regenerative future through our decisions as businesses and consumers.
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