Buckle up; this could be a bumpy ride. This stuff is important though, so hang with me here. The outlook may be bleak, but ignorance is far from bliss when it comes to our carbon budget.
As I teased last week, I want to share my thoughts on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent paper, published in collaboration with Material Economics, called “Completing the Picture: How The Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change.” It’s an outstanding piece of work, and I applaud everyone who contributed to it. But I feel compelled to start by highlighting two portions of their paper that felt like punches-in-the-gut when I read them.
First, a quote from page 15 – “There are powerful economic forces behind the damaging increase in GHG emissions. The trend has been driven by the rapid industrialisation of emerging economies and mass consumption in developed economies. This pattern is set to increase in the future. By 2050, the global population is projected to reach 10 billion. It is predicted that an emerging-market middle class will double its share of global consumption from one-third to two-thirds, and the world economy is expected to quadruple. This welcome, broad-based rise in prosperity will cause emissions to exhaust the available carbon budget by a large margin.”
Yes, the rise in prosperity for those people in emerging economies is welcome. Nonetheless, such a rapid expansion in the economy leaves me disturbed. It’s hard enough to decarbonize our $84.8 trillion global economy as it stands, and we’ve been eating that elephant one bite at a time for some time now. In three decades, we may look up and realize three new elephants were added to our plates.
The second gut punch, this time from the graph on page 17 - Our carbon budget for energy and industrial emissions to keep average temperature rise to 1.5°C by 2100 (i.e. the maximum amount of carbon we can emit to meet science-based climate goals) is 500 gigatons. Even with best available energy efficiency and zero carbon energy, materials production by itself will overshoot that carbon budget by 149 gigatons!!!
I’ll state it again, simpler this time. Just the way we make and consume stuff, setting aside energy, will still cause us to miss the Paris Climate goals.
These dire facts are why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Material Economics conducted this study. They wanted to show that scaling the circular economy is a necessary condition to reversing global warming, and they are right.
Once again from the paper, page 21 this time - “Applying circular economy principles to transform the way goods and materials are produced and used in the economy would offer significant potential to reduce GHG emissions. These can be summarized as follows: Design out waste and pollution to reduce GHG emissions; Keep products and materials in use to retain the embodied energy in products and materials; Regenerate natural systems to sequester carbon in soil and products” (emphasis in the original).
You can find a lot more material in the paper, and I urge you to read it all. In particular, they do a deep-dive in various sectors, including the built environment, transportation, and food systems. I suppose I focused more on the problem side of the coin in this post (apologies), but their research goes in-depth on the solution side as well. Further, the economic case for scaling circular economy solutions is tremendous.
My bottom-line in this post is simple though. Solving global warming won’t be easy, but take heart in knowing that solutions are literally everywhere. We can all be a part of creating the circular economy and reversing global warming, all at the same time.