Covid-19 and the circular economy: opportunities and reflections

In light of the covid-19 pandemic, how could the circular economy shape a more resilient, socially just and environmentally safe world?

Circle Economy
Apr 16, 2020 · 8 min read

This article was written by Laxmi Haigh and Lena Bäunker, with valued input and ideation from the wider Circle Economy team

This blog is part of a series of reflections on covid-19 and the circular economy. For previous blogs in the series, please see here.

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Short-term environmental relief

What role could the circular economy have in mitigating climate breakdown?

The swift slowdown of daily life in the face of covid-19 disruption — such as reduced vehicle use and power plant activity — has resulted in some positive environmental impacts. We’ve witnessed reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in air quality, for example. But environmental relief during this period is no guarantee of long-term change. Underlying frameworks need to be reassessed. Proponents of a circular economy have long warned of the unsustainable nature of the dominant “take-make-waste” model which is the bread and butter of most economies. Today, only 8.6% of extracted resources are reused or cycled. We extract at a faster rate than our world can regenerate. Despite health systems struggling under the strain of the pandemic, experts predict that climate breakdown — not covid-19 — will be the “biggest global health threat” of the century. Increasingly, parallels are being drawn between the pandemic and climate breakdown as both exposing an economy that is not future-proof.

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Following a vast reduction in air pollution, residents in Punjab, India, can now see the Himalayan mountain range from more than 100 miles away. Source: CNN travel

Inequality among communities and countries

How could the circular economy lead to a socially just and inclusive space?

In a matter of weeks we have observed the rapid deployment of urgent measures to contain the virus. This has demonstrated the capability of both governments and populations in promptly adapting their policies and behaviours — almost overnight. Indeed, this is the nature of emergencies; they fast-forward processes and decisions that could normally ‘take years of deliberation’. The responses to covid-19 have, however, further exposed inequality between and within communities and countries. Measures that aim to ‘flatten the curve’ — such as social distancing — deployed in Europe, the US and China could devastate lower-income countries and communities.

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The pandemic threatens to ignite a global food crisis and there are calls to maintain open trade and investment in food supply chains, as well as to protect farmers across the world. Photo by wilsan u on Unsplash

A fragile economic system

How could the circular economy craft a more resilient economy?

The remarkable situation we are now in has exposed the fragility of the dominant economic model to prepare for and respond to crisis and shocks. The economic impact of the pandemic is severe and growth prospects remain uncertain. The disruption has severed various global supply and production chains, many of which are increasingly international and complex, contributing now to their vulnerability. This has directly impacted unemployment — potentially 195 million job losses — and increased the risk of food insecurity for millions. If we “muddle through” each new crisis with the same economic model that got us here, albeit with short-term fixes to abate the impact, future shocks will continue to exceed capacities.

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The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries offers a compass for guiding 21st century prosperity. Learn more about Circle Economy’s collaboration with Kate Raworth for the Amsterdam Doughnut here.

Moving forward

Here we have presented a small selection of takeaways from our moments of team reflection. As the crisis continues to unfold and its impacts become clearer, we will constantly revisit this story and continue to publish our observations.

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Together, we can navigate the transition to a safe and just post-pandemic world.

Circle Economy

Circle Economy’s official blog.

Circle Economy

Written by

We work with businesses and cities, driving the transition from a linear Take-Make-Waste world to a circular economy. Let's make it happen. #circulareconomy

Circle Economy

Circle Economy’s official blog.

Circle Economy

Written by

We work with businesses and cities, driving the transition from a linear Take-Make-Waste world to a circular economy. Let's make it happen. #circulareconomy

Circle Economy

Circle Economy’s official blog.

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