The global context
The scientific evidence is clear: our climate is warming significantly and quickly in terms of geological timescale, and human activities have a direct influence on this rate and rise of temperature change. The consequences of this increase in temperature as a result of increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere are already being felt around the world through, for example, increasing numbers of extreme weather events, the ongoing erosion of polar ice, the thawing of the permafrost, the rising of sea levels and the warming of oceans - all of which affect many different communities and levels of biodiversity across the planet. These climatic events are increasing in their severity and our ability to limit damage is uncertain. This constitutes a global emergency. Internationally there are plans in place.
In 2015, 196 nations came together in Paris at the United Nations Climate conference and agreed to limit average global temperature rise to below two, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, above the pre-industrial levels of the end of the century. The Paris agreement sets out global action on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and the financial support needed for such change. Do current global plans and actions on climate change indicate that this goal is attainable?
Many scientists fear not. The evidence suggests that unless we dramatically alter the way in which we do things to limit CO2 emissions, we will see much higher increases in temperature1. The consequences of this change will significantly affect our lives and those of future generations, and impact thousands of other species and the natural ecosystems that support us all.
Types of action
Different scales of action are required to respond well to climate change, with systems-level changes that bring about new ways of working the most pressing. As individuals though we also have the ability to act with the environment in mind.
The big picture is that we need to reimagine how we power the world. This requires us to substitute non-renewable energy sources such as oil, gas and coal for the renewable alternatives of solar, wind, tidal and hydro. This process of decarbonising economies is central to positive climate action. While adopting new technologies and policies will play a large part in this process so too will establishing different behaviours around how we travel, what we eat and our levels of resource consumption. In the first lockdown caused by the Coronavirus of 2020, global CO2 emissions decreased by around 17% compared with the mean 2019 levels2. It starkly demonstrates the actual level of change required for a ‘real zero’ reduction in carbon emissions (a 100% reduction).
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)3 recognise the inequities in resource use across the globe, with some nations consuming far too much while others are still establishing ways of meeting basic needs such as sufficient food and water supplies, appropriate shelter, security, and protection and increasing access to education. There is both a need to balance things up (intra-generational equity) and to establish new operational ways of working that reflect the Earth’s planetary boundaries (inter-generational equity).
One new way of working is developing an economy where resource value is properly recognised, used, and recirculated – this is termed a circular economy. The concept of a circular economy challenges our current resource flow system which is linear in nature with too much stuff going to landfill4 UK consumption patterns show that on average: clothing is kept for 3.3 years5; the average lifespan of a kettle is around 4 years6; a mobile phone is replaced within 3 years7; and a washing machine replaced within 6-7 years8. Product durability has not really improved over recent decades even though technological advancements should have resulted in more resilient and longer-lasting products. Limiting product-life represents a strategy of ‘built-in obsolescence, where many manufacturers design products to last for a certain amount of time. Product strategies focused on maximum sales result in a large waste of energy and resource value, and worse, a production-consumption system that thrives on such waste. The new legislation will bring in a ’right to repair’ forcing product manufacturers to address these concerns in making products more durable and increasing the availability of spare parts9.
So, what does a more circular resource system look like, and how does it work? In broad terms, the idea of circular resource flow is to extend the use of resources for as long as possible in a useful and productive way.
Today we need to think about the global scale of circular resource flows. How do we develop resilient and regenerative material things: from kettles and cars to buildings and urban transport systems? At every scale, we need to look at how we care for resources across their whole lifecycle, from cradle to cradle. The Circular Economy applies lessons from nature where few resources are wasted. An effective circular flow of resources needs a number of things to be in place: new policy and regulation, good communications, a resource dedicated infrastructure that enables the collection of products in and after use; and new ways to re-process resources at the end of their life. No more keeping the old phone, laptop or video recorder in the drawer or garage! We need to find ways in which people feel safe to let go of these products knowing, for example, that the security of their data isn’t compromised. People need the ability (in terms of skills or financial viability) to repair products or replace components to make their phone /kettle /washing machine last longer. These changes move us away from the ‘buy cheap and often’ strategies that have dominated consumption patterns in recent decades.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
They are many different ways to enhance our own environmental behaviours. You may have already heard of many of them: consume less; reduce your use of plastics; eat less meat; produce less waste; don’t fly; drive less; use electric cars; use less energy to heat your home, and support a renewable energy supplier. All of these things are not new ideas and admittedly some may be easier to implement than others. There are also important trade-offs to understand around these activities. Plastic food packaging for example eliminates a lot of food waste. So instead of demonising plastics in isolation, it is important to recognise that our whole food system needs restructuring to consider how and where food is produced and to challenge, for example, the distance food travels from source to plate. While innovations in bioplastics provide more environmentally benign options for protecting food and reducing ocean plastics waste, equally important is our support for local food systems and favouring more ecologically beneficial habits of food growing, shopping, storage, cooking, and throwing away - as part of a more sustainable food system.
Many sustainable activities mean using less energy, using fewer material resources, and recovering more waste – and as a consequence, save us money too. When we think of a more efficient product we might look for an energy label - for example, purchasing an A+++ rated fridge-freezer or washing machine will not only be a better buy for the environment it will save us money in the long-term due to reduced demand for energy over the lifetime of keeping food cold or washing our clothes. This is certainly part of the story but not the whole story. If you open your energy-efficient fridge and keep the door open while you spend ages thinking about what to cook for tea, or you do a laundry wash every day even though the machine may be less than half full, the benefit of a higher energy rated product is eroded as a direct result of your own habits of use. The products in our home require us to use them in an informed way to gain the best energy-saving outcomes.
Another way to limit our environmental impact is to reduce what we buy in the first place. Clothes are a great example here. Fast fashion dominates the global textile and clothing sector and results in one of the highest throughputs of waste in the UK economy. On average, each person in the UK annually throws away, 4.7kg of clothing in mixed household waste, missing opportunities for reuse or recycling10
Buying less or buying differently such as second-hand clothing, or revamping what you have in your wardrobe – are all useful ways to make the most of the clothes you currently own. Looking after your clothes by carefully following the washing instructions and repairing items that tear or need a button replaced, are ways to keep things out of the waste stream for longer. When eventually you think enough is enough, look to dispose of them through proper recycling channels (often local councils have them) or if still wearable, sell or give away to charity.
Reducing our consumption of stuff and making what we have bought last longer can apply across all types of domestic products. Important to this story of enduring products is how they are designed and made in the first place. A long-lasting product economy that presents opportunities for repair and remanufacturing requires products to be designed thoughtfully from the very beginning.
- Climate Action Tracker (CAT) (2020) Global update: Paris Agreement Turning Point. Available at: https://climateactiontracker.org/publications/global-update-paris-agreement-turning-point/ (Accessed: 16 March 2021).
- Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. (2020) 'Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement'. Nature Climate Change 10, pp. 647–653 doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x
- UN Sustainable Development Goals (2021) The 17 goals. Available at: https://sdgs.un.org/goals (Accessed: 16 March 2021).
- McDonough, W. and M. Braungart (2002) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press.
- WRAP (2013) Measuring the Active Life of Clothing. Available at: https://wrap.org.uk/resources/report/measuring-active-life-clothing (Accessed: 16 March 2021).
- Gallego-Schmid, A., Jeswani, H. K., Mendoza, J. M. F. and Azapagic, A. (2018) 'Life cycle environmental evaluation of kettles: Recommendations for the development of eco-design regulations in the European Union'. Science of the Total Environment, 625, pp. 135-146 doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.12.262
- Suckling, J. R. and Lee, J. (2017) 'Integrating Environmental and Social Life Cyle Asessment: Asking the Right Question', Journal of Industrial Ecology, 21(6), pp. 1454-1463 doi: https://doi-org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/10.1111/jiec.12565
- WRAP (2013) Switched on to Value: Powering business change. Available at: https://wrap.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-03/WRAP-switched-on-to-value-powering-business-change.pdf (Accessed: 16 March 2021).
- Harrabin, R. (2019) 'BBC EU brings in ‘right to repair’ rules for appliances', BBC News, 1 October Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49884827 (Accessed: 16 March 2021).
- WRAP (2017) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost. Available at: http://www.ecap.eu.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Mapping-clothing-impacts-in-Europe.pdf (Accessed: 16 March 2021).