Fighting climate change in a consumerist environment

A highly visible consequence of a warmer world is the rise in the intensity and timing of extreme weather-based events. A direct measure of the economic impact of such events is the growing number of such billion-dollar disasters. At present trends, such climatic changes are expected to only worsen and increase. 

As a society, we can maximize the opportunities for preventive destructive climate change by adopting the principles of a circular economy.

The UN target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C needs stringent measures to be followed to succeed. The Global Circularity Gap Report (second edition) showcases ample scope to lower greenhouse gas emissions through the application of basic circular principles. These include re-using, re-manufacturing, and re-cycling or the 3Rs. However, even today, there is a lot that industry and governments need to do in terms of creation and adherence to policies on circular economy measures.

Reports indicate that approximately 10% of the global economy is circular. As of 2019, less than 10% of the metals, minerals, and fossil fuels that are mined are re-used in any given year. Material usage from mined sources and climate change are interlinked.

It is estimated that 62% of global greenhouse gas emissions (not including emissions from forestry and land use) are released during the extraction, processing, and manufacturing stages. The delivery and usage of these products and services are responsible for only 38% of emissions.

The ever-increasing rise in urban consumerism has accelerated the global demand for raw materials. The demand for raw materials could double over the next 3 decades. This could possibly make a circular-driven world the only option to adhere to the 1.5 degrees world. Recycling in a single industry like the automobile industry can make a massive contribution toward greenhouse gas emissions.

A systemic approach to applying these strategies would help cut emissions, curtail unnecessary mining, and tilt the scales in combat against the global warming onslaught.

Managing the built environment

Designing circular strategies to reduce waste is highly imperative when the built environment is to be considered. Estimates indicate that nearly 40% of annual global CO2 emissions are accounted for by the built environment. Within these emissions, building operations are responsible for nearly 28% annually, while building materials and construction contribute to an additional 11% annually.

Studies indicate that almost half of the raw materials getting into the economy are deployed towards constructing, developing, and maintaining office premises and complexes, residential properties, roads, and supporting infrastructure.

The tough part is about seizing or capitalizing on this opportunity. This calls for global coordination, as different nations will craft and use varying strategies. In emerging economies and developing countries, rapid urbanization coupled with higher population growth rates are pushing for the creation of more cities and townships. This poses a serious ask on how to utilize building practices that curtail raw material consumption and the emissions thereafter.

A large majority of housing and road infrastructure that the citizens will need over the next few decades are yet to be built. Such a proposition can lead to a staggering tonnage of greenhouse gases year on year. As of date, it is estimated that nearly 2% of China’s construction inputs presently consist of reused or recycled materials. Increasing this percentage can create a massive impact on emissions.

Developed economies have a mature housing stock and lower population growth rates. The demand for a built environment is far lower. In these cases, the value of existing infrastructure need to be maximized and the lifespan extended to the maximum. Energy efficiency can be a focus area. Increasing reuse and recycling of raw materials can help cut down on emissions.

A few principles of a circular built environment that create impact include:

  • Financing and investment decisions that place emphasis on long-term as well as future value of assets getting built

  • Modular designs that empower re-assembly or re-use

  • Recycling and reusing of existing building materials

  • Alternatives to carbon-intensive materials

Some action pointers for going circular

Some pointers that can be adapted throughout the economy and can considerably create quantifiable impact over time:

  • Optimizing the utility of goods and services by enhancing usage and lifespan. Ridesharing and renting make car ownership a lesser priority to many. This places lesser demand on energy and parking spaces. Autonomous driving will boost the demand for ridesharing even further. Rapid investments in technology and material usage, software integration, and smart maintenance programs can enhance the lifetime of passenger and commercial vehicles.

  • Pushing the pedal for increased recycling. Technologies are major enablers that can recycle waste as a resource and extract materials such as metals to their original levels of purity. Leading metal producers are actively begun using recycled metals as raw materials and this trend will increase. Nearly 80 million tons of solar panels are expected to be decommissioned by 2050. When designed with modular principles, these panels can easily be dismantled and the components can be reused. Recycling technologies can help recover valuable materials, further extending the economic value of the panels and cutting down on waste.

  • The adoption of a circular design that fosters lower material consumption and the deployment of lower-carbon replacements. Materials like wood, bamboo or other natural materials are capable of restricting the dependence on carbon-intensive materials such as metals and cement for construction purposes. Such materials carbon instead of emitting it. They also last a lifetime and they can be burnt to generate energy when discontinued from usage at the end of their life.

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