Even if all the existing pledges and national targets are achieved by 2030, emissions reductions won’t be sufficient to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.6 degrees F) to avoid an extreme climate crisis. Implementing circular economy strategies could help close that gap, according to a new paper from PACE, WRI, Chatham House and NREL released ahead of COP27.

It finds circular economy strategies can:

  • Complement decarbonization measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Support the sustainable scaling of the clean energy transition and
  • Enhance adaptation to a changing climate.

How Can a Circular Economy Reduce Emissions? 

As circular economy strategies reduce the demand for raw materials and new products, they can help reduce global emissions from half the global total that come from the extraction and processing of materials. The sectors which show the most promise for circular economy strategies to reduce emissions are buildings and other construction, transport and the food system, where they can reduce emissions from production, use (in terms of energy used for heating, cooling and fuelling) and disposal (when they are sent to the incinerator or the landfill). Instead of recycling at the end of materials’ life cycle, upstream strategies that include shifting consumption patterns and designing products that use materials more efficiently have the highest potential to reduce emissions.

For example, circular strategies with the highest potential to reduce emissions from material use in buildings are:

  • Reduced floor area per person in higher income populations
  • Efficient design that enables the use of less concrete, steel and other materials without losing functionality
  • Improved recycling rates and technologies for construction materials
materials and operational energy use emissions by sector

While important consensus is emerging on where a circular economy can deliver big wins for climate change mitigation, stronger collaboration and action are needed to continue advancing our collective understanding of the magnitude of the benefits, when they will materialize and how a circular economy can complement existing climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

How Does a Circular Economy Support the Transition to Clean Energy? 

The transition to clean energy, including solar and wind power and electric vehicles will require a much larger supply of minerals and is projected to create a fast-growing new waste stream when solar panels and wind turbines reach the end of their life in the years to come.  Circular economy strategies can support a more sustainable scaling of the clean energy transition by relieving material supply pressure, increasing supply chain resilience, preventing new waste challenges, accelerating the adoption of clean energy technologies, all while maximizing climate benefits, through:

  • Material-efficient product design and manufacturing. For example, the development of low-cobalt or cobalt-free cathodes in electric vehicle batteries can reduce the amount of minerals required, while reducing socio-ecological costs and carbon footprint.
  • Extending product life. As clean energy equipment is material- and energy-intensive to manufacture, there is greater climate benefit to extending the equipment’s useful life by upgrading, repairing, refurbishing and remanufacturing rather than replacing it.
  • Increasing recycling. By 2040, recycled copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from decommissioned batteries could reduce the demand for primary supply of these minerals by around 10%.

How Can a Circular Economy Enhance Climate Change Adaptation? 

Ninety percent of terrestrial biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by material resource extraction and processing. Circular economy strategies could slow down nature degradation by reducing the demand for virgin materials, decreasing pressure on ecosystems that improve climate adaptation, such as mangroves protecting against flooding or forests regulating temperatures. Regenerative agriculture can improve soil health and food production while improved waste management can help increase flood resilience. A circular economy can also help to build resilience to climate shocks and stresses. For example, the sharing economy could improve access to goods and services when needed. While increasing reuse, repair, refurbishment and using local materials and regenerative agricultural practices, could improve country resilience to global supply chain shocks induced by increasingly volatile climate events.

What Action Is Needed for a Circular Economy to Aid in Climate Action?

The paper outlines the following nine calls-to-action for decision makers and researchers to adopt and accelerate circular strategies where their climate benefit potentials are the highest:

1. Shift consumption patterns.

2. Stimulate product circularity from the design phase.

3. Incorporate circularity across clean energy value chains.

4. Integrate circular economy strategies into national climate policies and plans.

5. Incentivize cross-border greenhouse gas emission reductions

6. Connect circular economy metrics with climate change impacts.

7. Increase transparency and comparability in modelling methodologies.

8. Apply systemic and context-specific impact assessment to inform decision-making.

9. Investigate the role of the circular economy in climate change adaptation.

Some progress has been made in these areas, for example the number of COP parties mentioning the circular economy or equivalent strategies has increased from 2015 to 2022. However, many focus only on waste management and some of the largest emitters have not yet considered this approach. Where waste management has an important role to play in emissions reduction, more systemic strategies are needed (to address the product's lifecycle) to deliver the highest emission reduction potential. 

Countries that include circular economy in NDCs

We invite governments, businesses, philanthropies, NGOs, multilaterals and researchers to join the discussion and collaborate to implement these calls-to-action to maximize the potential of a circular economy to reach climate goals and aid climate action.

Read the full paper, Circular Economy As a Climate Strategy, for more information.