The circular economy could save life on Earth – starting with our cities

Commentary, Online Exclusive Feature / 2021

The circular economy could save life on Earth – starting with our cities

by Luis Bettencourt, Pritzker Director of Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, University of Chicago

Imagine a world with no wastes, no pollution; where animals and plants on land and in the oceans prosper from the existence of humans as much as we do from the biology and geophysics of the Earth.

Is this impossible?

Or must life on Earth be a zero-sum game between humanity and other species?

A new World Economic Forum report showcases many emerging models for making the economy more circular—especially in cities—and points the way forward for how to evolve current economic systems into a comprehensive logic of sustainability.

Image: World Economic Forum

The rub with the circular economy is that it does not exist today: it needs to be invented and grown. Fast; over the next few decades. The key is decoupling economic growth and human development from resource extraction and waste generation.

“Bending” the economy from its present linear sequence of resource extraction, production, consumption and waste disposal to become circular and sustainable requires a much more thorough systems approach to goods and services.

It requires a reconceptualisation of design and production, and the development of technologies and processes that can turn used finished goods back into inputs to production.

These transformations squarely locate the birth of the circular economy in places where resources are most limited, and where living with the consequences of waste and pollution are direst.

Imagining a more sustainable future

The good news is that much of it is already happening.

The report gives a number of inspiring examples from cities worldwide in areas of water, energy, plastics and waste management, as well as showcasing emerging novel concepts for procurement, finance and design.

Cities throughout the world are already increasing their rates and targets for recycling, for example, and finding new uses for wastes arising from their built environment as well as from consumption.

By formalising their sustainability goals, many cities are also increasingly internalising part of their resource flows, especially in water and high value-added food production, and removing carbon emissions and pollution from energy consumption.

But there are still many barriers to making the economy comprehensively circular. Worldwide human development and urbanisation will likely be associated with more energy use, not less.

The age of recycling everything

The nature of the transition is systemic: it cannot be achieved by any single actor. For this reason, there is a need for collaborations between governments, the nonprofit sector, businesses and citizens. This is to achieve a favourable environment that encourages innovation aligned at once with more sustainable circular practices, as well as steady and equitable economic growth.

As a consequence, the transition to a circular economy needs to be evolved gradually, with close attention to network effects and cooperation among many stakeholders. Cities are especially well placed to lead the way.


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