Only 9% of materials are reused globally yet emissions closely linked to resource use
Climate change and material use are closely linked. 62% of global greenhouse gas emissions (excluding those from land use and forestry) are released during the extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods. Yet global use of materials is accelerating. It has more than tripled since 1970 and could double again by 2050 without action, according to the UN International Resource Panel.
The figure shows where within the global economy greenhouse gases are emitted in satisfying 7 societal needs. In 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 50.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, excluding emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry. Approximately 62% of emissions are released during the extraction (Take), processing (Process) and production (Produce) phases, generating 12.5, 10 and 9.3 Gt CO2e.
A 1.5°C world can only be circular
In order to mitigate climate change we need to:
1. Extend product lifetime and improve use-intensity
This is about making better use of existing products. When extending the lifetime of a product, reusing or sharing it, less product is needed to respond to a given demand. As a result, value-chain emissions from the Take, Process, Produce and perhaps even Provide steps are reduced. Taken together, these strategies make up about a quarter of the circular mitigation potential in European industries.
2. Enhance recycling to use waste as a resource
Approximately half the potential for circular mitigation in European industries lies in using waste as a resource. By feeding waste materials back into the processing phase of a value chain, emissions from the Take and Process phases can be reduced. For the vast majority of products and materials we use, producing them from primary materials yields far greater greenhouse gas emissions, than producing them from recycled materials.
3. Circular design: reduce material use
Lightweighting products adds another quarter to the circular mitigation potential in European industry. This requires changing product design.
4. Circular design: prioritise low-carbon materials
The first three strategies are aimed at reducing the demand for materials and rely on the extensive work done by the International Resource Panel and Material Economics. Substituting carbon-intensive materials with low-carbon and potentially bio-based alternatives is another promising strategy which has barely been explored, as yet. When it comes to biomass however, using it for its material properties is a more effective mitigation strategy than using it as a renewable energy source.
"As climate change experts and practitioners are increasingly searching for new and innovative approaches to increase the climate ambition to enable the achievement of the Paris Agreement, circular economy has the potential to shift our world economy to a 2⁰C or even 1.5⁰C pathway since 67% of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to material management.
— Achim Steiner
Administrator at United Nations Development Program (UNDP)