COVID-19 relief and recovery plans aimed at recycling and reusing more of the billions of tonnes of materials consumed each year could slash planet-heating emissions and limit the impacts of climate change, researchers said on Tuesday.
By developing and promoting ways to reduce the amount of minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass used in new products, greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 39%, or 22.8 billion gigatonnes annually, said a report by Amsterdam-based social enterprise Circle Economy.
“Governments are making huge decisions that will shape our climate future,” CEO Martijn Lopes Cardozo said in a statement.
“They are spending billions to stimulate their economies after the COVID pandemic and they are committed to strengthening their climate commitments,” he added, referring to new national targets being submitted ahead of November’s U.N. climate summit.
Greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high of 59.1 gigatonnes in 2019, putting the world on track for an average temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, a U.N. report showed last year.
About 70% of emissions are generated by resource extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods to meet the needs of the world’s population, such as clothing, mobile phones and food, according to the fourth annual report by Circle Economy.
Only about 8.6% of the 100 billion tonnes of materials utilised annually are put back into service, added the report, published during the virtual “Davos Agenda” event organised by the World Economic Forum.
To reduce waste and emissions, and keep climate change in check, economies should seek to become “circular” by reusing and recycling products, green groups say.
“Ever since the beginning of the 1990s, countries have come out with climate pledges – but all of them combined have never even got close to deliver what we should deliver,” said Marc de Wit, director of strategic alliances at Circle Economy.
“Most of those options in those pledges look at incremental solutions – like squeezing another kilometre out of a litre of petrol – rather than moving to electrified transport and shared mobility concepts in urban areas,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The report identified strategies that can help achieve the goals adopted in the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit the average rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2C (3.6F), and ideally to 1.5C, above pre-industrial times.
Housing, mobility and nutrition are responsible for almost 70% of global emissions, it noted, and are key areas where strategies to become “circular” could have the greatest impact.
Housing, which includes commercial and industrial buildings, should reuse and recycle construction and demolition waste to divert it from landfill, while office floor space could be shrunk, de Wit said.
Choosing low-carbon building materials, such as sustainable timber and agriculture waste, and powering heating and cooling systems with renewable energy are also key, he added.
Passenger and freight transport contributes most of the 17.1 billion gigatonnes of emissions from mobility each year, primarily from burning fossil fuels, according to the report.
New design to make vehicles lighter would cut consumption of raw materials, while car-sharing schemes can make their use more efficient, it added.
During the coronavirus pandemic, people have reduced air travel and commuting, replacing many physical meetings with video calls, which could continue, said de Wit, adding that public and electrified transport should also be promoted.
On nutrition, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture can reduce the environmental impact of fish, cattle and crop farming while still producing good yields, the report said.
The use of cleaner cooking fuels and switching to more locally sourced, plant-based diets would also reduce emissions, de Wit said.
Measures in the report could nearly double the proportion of materials that are reused to 17%, it said.
Martin Frick, a senior official at the U.N. climate change body, called for efforts to restore the planet’s balance.
“We need to eliminate waste and create products that last, can be repaired and ultimately can be transformed into new products,” he said in a statement.