More than 700 jurisdictions and local governments around the world, encompassing 135 million citizens, have now declared a climate emergency. It’s a huge statement of intent but the next step must be for them to focus on creating a circular economy to underpin those declarations and encourage us to live within our means.
A truly circular economy requires a fundamental shift from our outdated take-make-waste model to a system where resources retain their highest possible value.
Apart from countering the depletion of natural resources, climate change and environmental degradation, a circular economy can bring jobs, investment and social capital, making economies more resilient and competitive overall.
At Circle Economy, a Dutch social enterprise advocating the circular economy, we recently launched a new report, The Role of Municipal Policy in the Circular Economy, which found that circular policies, especially strategy, targets, loans and subsidies, are conducive to generating both employment and investment.
The report looked at 43 European cities, from Amsterdam to Zagreb, and found that local government programmes which encourage and support circular economy practices, such as repair, recycling and circular design activities, also result in tangible socio-economic benefits for the city and its people.
We were inspired by some of the initiatives in place and found that there were three key practices adopted by municipalities across Europe that benefit society and attract jobs, investment and social capital in their local circular economy:
1. Create a circular economy strategy and set ambitious targets to attract investment in circular activities
The cities that were most successful in developing a circular economy developed shared societal and environmental objectives, which gave strategic direction to all stakeholders in the city and encouraged long-term thinking and collaboration over short-term budgeting.
The city of Malmö, Sweden, invited over 100 companies to inform the development of a fossil-free 2030 roadmap. By engaging contractors, banks, suppliers and construction companies, Malmö was able to synchronise the thinking about circularity and resource efficiency in the construction sector. Stone wool insulation company ROOKWOOL testifies how this has made it significantly easier for the stakeholders in the local construction chain to find project partners that share the long term thinking that is required to transition to circularity.
2. Leverage economic support to help circular initiatives overcome financial barriers
Financial injections and public procurement are vital to help circular initiatives establish a business, service immature markets and take office in a city.
The city of Amsterdam has provided financial assistance to businesses in the circular economy through loans and subsidies. One of those loans and a reduced rent have allowed DOOR Architecten to establish an office in the city. Thanks to this support, their offices are not only centrally located, but also a prime example of circular construction as they are made from recycled, reusable and bio-based materials. The continued attention to circular criteria in tenders from municipalities across the Netherlands has allowed the architecture practice to expand their portfolio of projects and further pursue circularity in their work.
3. Employ soft policy instruments to support ongoing circular activities
Building strong networks and sharing information across a city can raise the knowledge levels of local stakeholders by boosting human and social capital.
The London Waste and Recycling Board supports SMEs that want to make their processes more circular with their Advance London Business Support Programme. ToastAle, an innovative brewery which transforms surplus fresh bread into beer, was able to work with the programme to run an analysis of the environmental impact of their production process and packaging, which informed a number of key changes. Beyond knowledge and insights, the programme also provides valuable access to a business network, which helps ToastAle raise the profile of its product and mission.
As we move towards a net zero future, cities and urban policy makers will play a pivotal role in accelerating the circular economy and realising its socio-economic potential.
Governments can use the circular economy as an opportunity to ensure the inclusive and sustainable development of their cities, but they must put the right practices in place as a matter of priority to help us avoid the worst impacts of the climate emergency they have declared.
The time is now.
Joke Dufourmont leads the Jobs & Skills Programme of Circle Economy, an impact organisation that connects and empowers a global community to create the conditions for systemic transformation.