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The growth we want is sustainable: harnessing innovation for a circular economy for all

With rapidly growing competition for resources and increasing waste and pollution, the need to move towards an inclusive circular economic system is growing.  A circular economy has the incentives and means to use existing resources in an efficient and sustainable fashion – relying on renewable energy sources, extracting more value from waste products, minimizing food waste, and increasing the quality of life for all segments of society. 

Perhaps most importantly, this transition poses tremendous opportunities. While, coupled with rapid technological change and increasing globalization, some existing jobs, economic sectors, and production processes will become obsolete, it will also nurture fertile ground for new and green jobs and new economic sectors. This is already happening: the rapidly growing sharing economy is one example of how we can not only use resources more efficiently, but also make them increasingly affordable.

But we are only getting started and have a long road ahead of us. The Circularity Gap Report presented at the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos estimates that only 9% of the global economy is circular today. That is not enough. We clearly have to move faster. The problem is that we cannot know in advance what will work and what will not. Instead, we have to try out different solutions and scale up what works. In other words, we need innovation. But innovation does not only mean scientific research and shiny new technologies: the ways we use them, the ways we set the rules of the game, and the ways we create the right incentives matter much more.

This was the central message that emerged from the discussion “The Growth we Want is Sustainable: Harnessing innovation for a circular economy for all”, organized by UNECE and UN Environment on 9 July as a side-event for the 2019 High-Level Political Forum. Speakers from governments, businesses, and civil society shared ideas and experiences from different parts of the UNECE region and beyond.

“The circular economy is a compulsory choice for a sustainable world” said UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova. Emphasizing the need for innovative solutions to re-shape linear economies, she highlighted the importance of exploring new channels to move forward: “We are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, which is changing the societies and economies in ways we have never imagined before. Therefore, what we need is to enable experimentation – with technologies, policies, governance arrangements, and business ides”.

UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and solar aviation pioneer Bertrand Piccard warned that today’s model of quantitative growth is leading us to environmental chaos, climate change and depletion of natural resources. “Qualitative growth means that we can create jobs and make profit by replacing the old, outdated, inefficient and polluted infrastructures by new modern and efficient ones, ones that can protect the environment. This is the market of the century”, he urged, arguing that “this is the way to speak the language of the people we want to convince”.

Central to the resulting multi-stakeholder dialogue is innovation – the driving force of the transition towards inclusive and circular economic growth. Stakeholders, including representatives of UNECE member States Sweden, Germany, Georgia and Finland, as well the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), discussed challenges, opportunities and best practices of transforming the existing system of production and consumption patterns from a life-cycle perspective.

This mechanism involves applying frontier technologies, such as IT and artificial intelligence, business models that re-shape product life-cycles, and sharing platforms in different sectors which make way for more sustainable consumption. The high cost of experimentation calls for knowledge-based solutions to identify the right partnerships and sources of finance that will enable and promote innovative high-growth entrepreneurship within SMEs towards a new service-based economy. R&D partnerships with academia in less advanced economies will ensure the necessary digital transfer, while developing targeted skills and supporting life-long learning for the jobs of the future, and distributional aspects through bold social protection, will ensure that no-one is left behind.

Stakeholders further expressed their wish to continue the dialogue on inclusive circular economic growth and long-term sustainability, and to look into supporting policies, norms and standards, developed through multilateralism and partnership at the regional and global level, to reach the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

UNECE fosters cross-sectoral linkages to further accelerate these processes, bringing countries, civil society, and the private sector together towards the common goal of a systemic transition to more sustainable production and consumption practices. To this end, UNECE is pooling its multisectoral expertise through an integrated “nexus” approach to 2030 Agenda delivery. Examples of initiatives to support countries’ shift to the circular economy include a resource management framework that helps make use of valuable resources from mining and landfill, policy recommendations on recycling, the development of a blockchain-supported application to enable a circular approach along garment and footwear sector value chains, and an innovative and unique IT- supported food loss management system to repurpose and bring back into the supply chain food that would otherwise be lost.