COVID-19 pandemic highlights importance of the circular economy


As countries across the world grapple with the fallout from COVID-19, there is growing acknowledgment that the traditional linear approach to economic growth is no longer sustainable. Many experts believe that the crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity to embrace a new approach, and many countries are already taking active steps towards growing a circular economy.


"We must start investing in what makes our socio-economic system resilient to crisis, by laying the foundation for a green, circular economy that is anchored in nature-based solutions and geared toward public well-being," says Prof. Phoebe Koundouri, Professor of Natural Resources, Economics and Econometrics at the Athens University of Economics and Business, and Co-Chair of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Greece.


In an article published on the SDSN website on 1 April 2020 ("Never waste a good crisis: For a sustainable recovery from COVID-19"), Koundouri said now was the time to usher in systemic economic change. The blueprint for doing so, she argued, was already available in the form of a combination of UN Agenda 2030 (comprising the 17 Sustainable Development Goals) and the European Commission's European Green Deal.


"Now is the time for financial institutions and governments … to phase out fossil fuels by deploying existing renewable energy technologies, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – amounting to US$5,2 trillion per annum – and redirect them to green and smart climate mitigation and adaptation infrastructural projects, invest in circular and low‑carbon economies, shift from industrial to regenerative agriculture, exploit the limits of the digital revolution, and reduce transportation needs."


Science and the transition to a circular economy


Koundouri added that as science was being used to design measures to restrain the diffusion of COVID-19, science could also be used to design economies that would mitigate the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pandemics.


This is something that South Africa, through its Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), is actively pursuing. The Department's White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), which was approved by Cabinet in March 2019, is one of the first South African policy documents to consider the circular economy model in terms of its long-term economic growth potential.


And in its report on the South Africa Foresight Exercise for STI, the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) – an entity of the DSI – identified the circular economy as one of nine priority STI domains. The Foresight report, released in December, describes the circular economy as focusing on "the generation of products that are restorative and regenerative by design, and which circulate through the economy repeatedly, thereby minimising waste".



The report notes that the circular economy represents a new trajectory for South Africa, and that its implementation will require an innovative, transdisciplinary, STI-based strategy to reduce costs, create jobs and micro-industries, and benefit the economy, the health of people and the environment.


The DSI's Programme: Socio-economic Innovation Partnerships is driving the Department's work on the circular economy. The Programme's Deputy Director-General, Imraan Patel, said the circular economy was "a very important element of a concept that we are taking forward in the innovation policy space, namely innovation for transformative change.


"It is aimed at a deep-seated change that re-orientates societies to a much more sustainable, fairer world," Patel said.


Developing an STI framework on the circular economy


To enable the transition to a circular economy, the DSI has begun developing a STI Framework on the Circular Economy, and has been participating in events focused on the circular economy to gather information. The most recent of these was a two-day symposium held in Pretoria in November last year under the auspices of the South Africa-European Union (SA-EU) Dialogue Facility, a platform for championing the use of STI to derive socio-economic benefits from the circular economy.


Speaking at the symposium, the Deputy Head of the EU delegation in South Africa, Raul de Luzenberger, said the circular economy approach holds numerous benefits that cannot be ignored.


"In the circular economy, almost nothing is wasted. Reuse and remanufacturing become standard practice, and sustainability is built into the system. At the same time, the circular economy is an opportunity to create decent, long-term jobs and boost competitiveness. The job creation potential of the circular economy is not to be underestimated."


Also speaking at the symposium, Cecilia Njenga, Head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) office in South Africa, said there was increasing momentum on the circular economy in Africa. UNEP is working with local partners, including governments, the private sector and local communities, to design and apply circular economy systems.


The circular economy in Africa


Njenga said that partnering with global leaders in the circular economy, such as the EU, would help African countries accelerate progress on circularity. "Working together with global value chain partners in the context of the EU Green Deal will foster coordinated efforts in resource-intensive and high-impact sectors such as textiles and construction."


With population growth expected to double in African cities between 2030 and 2050, the future must be designed for circularity, Njenga said, noting that adopting circularity and resource efficiency could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in some sectors by up to 99%.


"Circularity will help African countries prevent pollution, reduce the burden of disease, and improve health and quality of life."


While the political will exists to support the transition to a circular economy, the private sector will be a key player. In South Africa, local and multinational companies have come together in a voluntary coalition, the National Business Initiative (NBI), that is working to shape a sustainable future through responsible business action.


Steve Nicholls, Head of Environmental Sustainability at the NBI, believes that achieving such a future will require doing things "radically differently and together". The most pressing issue facing South Africa is socio-economic transformation, he argued, and in order to address this, the country will need "more than small tweaks".


"Climate change and the circular economy are intimately linked, and simply put, we will not archive carbon neutrality by 2050 without the circular economy," Nicholls said. "This reinforces the findings of the 'Reimagining Africa's Future' report, which states, among others, that there is a conservative annual opportunity of US$350 billion to be unlocked in new, sustainable business models

 Graphic: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development



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