Circular economies become the focus of recovery plans after countries weather the risks of the linear model. The concept of a ‘circular economy’ has been defined and discussed in academic communities since the 1970s and, until recently, has occupied a space outside of the dominant political discourse on sustainability and responses to climate change.
Recently, the circular economy agenda has received a boost with numerous mentions in post-pandemic economic recovery plans as part of governmental and supra-national pledges to ‘build back better,’ such as in the European Commission’s ‘Green Deal.’ Yet exactly how this transition toward a circular economy should take place remains unclear for many and indeed the concept of a circular economy is often criticised for being largely theoretical and aspirational, with few real-world examples of national or sector-specific circularity.1
What does a circular economy look like in reality, what is the role of technology in achieving this vision and how does it relate to climate change? Simply put, the circular economy is a system that moves away from the traditional ‘take-make-waste’ linear model of production and consumption to one where economic growth is decoupled from the extraction and ultimate disposal of natural resources. This is achieved through the expanded use of renewable energy, and the minimisation or reuse of material waste and pollution, including greenhouse gases. Inherent to the concept of circular economy is the idea that the pursuit of greater material resource efficiency is a driver of technological innovation, job creation and sustainable economic growth. As such, the circularity concept can be translated into a political and economic reform agenda that contributes to the achievement of almost all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Table 1 summarises the various aspects of circular economy business models.
|Circular Supply||Resource Recovery||Product Life Extension||Sharing||Product Service System|
|Key Characteristics||Replace traditional materials with renewable materials||Produce secondary raw materials||Extend product lives||Increase utilisation of existing productions and assets||Provision of services rather than products|
|Resource Efficiency Driver||Close material loops||Close material loops||Slow material loops||Shared assets||Operation and maintenance efficiency|
|Business Model Sub-Types||Cradle to Cradle||Industrial symbiosis Recycling, upcycling, downcycling||Repair, reuse, remanufacture, refurbish||Co-access Co-ownership||Product-oriented, client-oriented, output-oriented|
|Main Sectors||Diverse consumer product sectors||Metal Paper Plastics||Automotive Heavy machinery Electronic||Transport Lodging Machinery Consumer products||Transport Chemicals Energy|
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the risks associated with the linear economy, revealing weaknesses in existing (unsustainable) supply chains, where the prospects of greater resource efficiency through recycling, reuse, and the repair of goods enable countries to create and capture greater economic value and resilience. However, in order to kick-start circular economic activity, a basic prerequisite is adequate information on current resource pathways, including in the informal sector, which is often lacking. Following this, enabling environments supported by policy, regulations and incentives need to be established and incorporated into national industry and economic development plans. Relevant technologies then need to be identified and potentially adapted to suit local circumstances. Local capacities need to be developed and sector-specific demonstrations are required to make the business case, especially as a means to engage small and medium-sized enterprises.
The CTCN is responding to country requests for technical assistance to articulate circular economy actionable roadmaps that will incentivise or unlock investment in clean technologies and industrial processes that follow the principles of economic circularity. In providing this service, the CTCN aims to ensure that the circular economy becomes accessible to lower-income countries in order to enhance opportunities for technology-driven climate action, economic growth and comparative advantage.
In Africa, there are currently 16 countries collaborating with the CTCN on circular economy initiatives. These vary in scope, ranging from the development of circular economy roadmaps for abating greenhouse emissions in the waste sector in Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, to more specific exploration of the valorisation of biomass waste in national energy systems in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mali, and Senegal.