Tackling Climate Change Within the Emerging Circular Economy

Circular Economy

Author: Linda Brown, Senior Vice President

Speaking last November in Marrakech at the Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum (SIGEF 2016), and in the COP22 Green Zone, I had the opportunity to discuss climate in the context of the emerging circular economy. I was also fortunate to hear from some of the world’s leading innovators in this area. Representatives of the aviation industry, shipping industry, energy sector, agriculture sector, product manufacturing sector, and sustainable cities movement all delivered powerful messages of progress, with a clear call for further action.

As a business paradigm, the circular economy represents a maturing of the global business community. Under this philosophy, biological and mineral resources are no longer simply there for the taking, but are precious natural capital to be stewarded. Air, water, and ecosystems are no longer viewed as dumping grounds for wastes, but are community commons that must be protected. And products are not simply trinkets to be used and discarded, but are designed to serve their function, then to be reused, repurposed, or recycled with the least possible waste.

In essence, the circular economy seeks to emulate the earth’s complex balancing act that sustains life, wasting nothing in the process. Business value is derived through: risk management across the entire value chain; reduced pressures on natural resources; identification of new revenue streams; adaptation to new technologies and globalization trends; and brand protection. All of this must be supported with accurate sustainability metrics to evaluate progress. Rather than a zero sum game, it embodies a true win-win philosophy, an enlightened self-interest that recognizes the intricate ways in which we are all connected.

Circular Economy

The companies SCS has certified around the world have been at the vanguard of the circular economy movement, for example:

  • with sustainable agricultural practices that build soil, actively prevent erosion, and protect water and wildlife while yielding abundant, nutritious crops and creating a fair, equitable work environment;
  • with innovative take-back, recycle and reuse product design solutions that divert wastes from the landfill and protect precious resources;
  • with diversified forest economy programs that value wood not just as timber or fuel, but recognize the many environmental services performed by a living, healthy forest, not the least of which includes the support of local communities and the sequestration of carbon; and
  • with the strategic use of life-cycle assessment to assess environmental performance, not only internally, but up and down the supply chain, in order to evaluate risk, as well as significant opportunities for improvement with real returns on investment.

Now, in this period of unprecedented climate change, it is essential for companies, governments and institutions to apply the lessons of the circular economy to our greatest challenge – stabilizing the Earth’s climate. These lessons include:

  • recognition of the intrinsic and irreplaceable value of the global commons – our delicately balanced climate that sustains all life;
  • risk management through resource husbandry, pollution prevention, waste diversion, and careful application of innovative technologies to sequester carbon and prevent climate endangering emissions without unintended trade-offs;
  • exponential thinking to recognize the need for rapid, effective action not only by 2030, 2040, or 2050, but to head off dangerous temperature spikes of +2-degrees Centigrade (+2°C) or greater within the next 10 years;
  • and finally, up-to-date metrics that will enable us to more clearly evaluate each climate mitigation strategy, to determine whether it can deliver the results we need in time, and to ensure that our money is well spent.

This last point – the need for up-to-date climate accounting metrics – is perhaps the least glamorous but the most important conversation we need to be having right now. As we have pointed out previously, climate accounting metrics currently used by carbon registries, carbon markets, government policy makers, corporate carbon footprinting, and even in country negotiations are two decades out of date!

Climate science has progressed dramatically, as summarized in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). We now understand that:

  • methane presents a climate risk that is 4-5-times higher than previously understood;
  • two substances not accounted for under conventional climate accounting systems – black carbon particulates and tropospheric ozone – are major climate pollutants that must be mitigated rapidly;
  • some pollutants have been artificially cooling the earth, and their presence or absence must be understood to fully fathom the true dimensions of the climate challenge;
  • changes in ocean and air circulation patterns, and other natural climate dynamics, must also be more effectively taken into consideration.

Moreover, we’ve learned that we need to focus on slowing and ultimately reversing levels of excess trapped radiation (heat) – measured in watts per square meter (W/m2) over the Earth’s surface – which are driving up global temperatures. Think of it like putting cold water on a stove – you turn up the heat, and after a few minutes the water boils. Well, as we’re turned up the heat on the planet, the Earth’s temperature has risen. A new study published in the journal Science last month shows that at today’s temperatures, climate change is already disrupting every segment of the natural world.

We are already at +2.4 W/m2 above historic baseline levels. Unless we change course, this heat level is enough to drive Earth’s average global temperature well above +1.8°C. The upper limit set under the Paris Climate Agreement, +2°C, is just around the corner. The bottom line is that carbon dioxide emission reduction efforts and climate adaptation efforts will be far too little, too late if we don’t also engage in near-term climate crisis intervention. And that turns out to be bottom line for sustainable business enterprise as well.

"Only when we get the math right can we truly understand which mitigation options have the capacity to deliver the results we need in time to head off run-away climate change in the coming decade, which options can be deployed without causing unintended harm to the environment or human health, and how to avoid spending billions of dollars chasing ideas that won't work."

An essential step toward stabilizing climate at or below +1.5°C – the more ambitious goal set under the Paris Agreement – or even more aggressively at today’s level of about +1.2°C, is to adjust and update our climate accounting methods. Only when we get the math right can we truly understand which mitigation options have the capacity to deliver the results we need in time to head off run-away climate change in the coming decade, which options can be deployed without causing unintended harm to the environment or human health, and how to avoid spending billions of dollars chasing ideas that won’t work.

Fortunately, efforts are now underway to bring attention to updated climate accounting protocols for international use based on the IPCC Fifth Assessment science. And forward-looking companies and industry associations are already applying these updated protocols to develop a clearer understanding of their own climate footprints and how to get the biggest bang for the buck. Ask us for more details about that.

Can we stabilize climate? Technically, the answer is yes. Are we up to the task? Perhaps. For the sake of a healthy and sustainable economy, we will need to co-invest in climate solutions that in some instances extend beyond company boundaries or political borders. We may also need to shed some preconceived notions of what will work and what won’t in the near-term in order to get the job done. Informed by up-to-date science, and motivated by the need to act now, we still have the ability to succeed in this ultimate sustainability venture.

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