Jonathan Andrews spoke to Arab Hoballah, Chief of the Sustainable Lifestyles, Cities and Industry Branch at the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) during the Urban Future Conference held in Graz, Austria
You painted a dark and pessimistic picture during your presentation here in Graz on the future of the circular economy. Do you not think that technology will enable the notion of the circular economy to move forward?
With the circular economy, resource efficiency, sustainable consumption and production I have some optimism. Am I an optimist? No. But I have some optimism because I have seen the change, mainly in the youth today that are more aware. If you look at the evolution in absolute terms, young people are much more sensitive to sustainability, to food waste, to lighting and to quality of life than older people.
More and more university and school programmes are caring about that and encouraging children that are five or six year’s old to not waste food, to recycle. They go back home, and this is the best thing, they are the ones teaching their parents. Because they ask their parents why they are not implementing this at home when their teacher has told them to do so.
Many people come to me after conferences asking for guidance, and I have been guiding many to change a little. At the same time you have many mayors or local authorities that have understood that finally it is a good solution for them, it will help them improve their city because they care about their city but at the same time it will help them keep their positions and to leave a legacy.
You also said that the issue of the circular economy is difficult to promote and does not gain as much traction as it is not deemed ‘sexy’. Can the circular economy and sustainability be made ‘sexy’?
I wouldn’t say sexy, I presented it this way because that is unfortunately how things work but to make it acceptable and understandable we have to make sure we are providing city leaders with information and solutions that they can implement.
If I go to a mayor and say, ‘You should change your habit’ it doesn’t lead anywhere. But if I go and tell them that if you start buying this product that costs 10 percent more but at the end of the day will improve your residents’ health dramatically then that mayor will follow you.
It is about selling the positives. The mayor can then lead his or her community by example and announce to the market that for any new building, for any new retrofitting, or for any food for the canteen there will be a new criteria to be included in the procurement. At the city level billions can be saved that can be then invested in job creation, education and health.
Is it just a matter of simply selling the business case?
You have to make mayors and business leaders see the business case of anything you do otherwise you cannot convince them. That is why you can convince a mayor, I’m talking about Europe, that if they retrofit just their existing buildings, just by improving energy by 30 to 50 percent–which is not difficult–they will save so much more and be able to invest in other public services.
Even mayors in developing cities, instead of constructing the typical building, mayors can request that builders invest in shading to save energy costs. Even if this adds 10 percent more to the overall costs, local banks can provide loans which can be paid back earlier due to the savings on electricity bills. It will then be a win-win, but you have to convince them.
It is often the case that mayors or city leaders in developing countries do not have as much control over their resources and departments as developed cities. How can they “sell the case” for the circular economy?
In Europe mayors are elected, and with an open media they have to care about their citizens. In many developing countries, if not most, mayors are designated without any elections. They rely on the party and the central government and hence are more accountable to their party and government than their citizens.
Having said that, rather than giving the impression that you are going against the government–you have to be careful–we can still say to him or her, ‘You know if you change your building this way your government will be very happy as you are saving them resources’. So you see how you can turn it around.
Most national governments have signed onto the Kyoto protocol or the Paris agreement where they have to reduce CO2 emissions. Once the government signs it, it becomes a headache for them as to how to implement it. But when a mayor takes a solution to their minister and shows how implementing sustainable solutions to projects involving the circular economy, which then helps the country fulfil 5 percent of its Paris agreement, the minister will of course be happy.
Are there too many stakeholders and players in the field?
It is extremely important that we go through this issue of partnerships and make people aware of the interest of working together because everyone is tempted to work alone in his or her corner because this is the easiest way. ‘I do my job and I pass it over’. For that you need someone who is looking for the common interest and I do it representing the UN, but a mayor or secondary city level person or a well known teacher at the university can also undertake this to brainstorm around the idea. Once you have done it well and you have a good case study or best practice then communicate about it so that people understand the driver of the change. The driver of the change must be given and explained as whether it be avoiding problem X or improving Y.
Are you also seeing a bottom-up approach?
It depends in which countries the cities are located. They have to be very careful. In Europe you have open cities, they can complain and so on as it is part of the democratic process. You cannot do it exactly the same way in other regions but you still have certain ways of expressing your opinion, not to get into confrontation but to show that this can be done this way.
Mayors will not be stupid enough that if he or she finds a solution to a problem to say no to it, but you have to approach it differently. Here in Europe you can be provocative, you will not go to jail, but in some areas of the world if you are provocative you are dead. You can achieve the same result; it is just the approach that has to be adapted to the context, with the same objective.
Are there any particular cities that you have seen excelling in this area?
Freiburg [Germany] and Santa Monica [US] are small cities but they have taken very interesting steps. The mayor of Santa Monica over one year decided that she had to meet with all the business people, all the heads of small and medium enterprises. She created a community of trust with the people so as to move ahead with circular economy initiatives.
It is something we can do; we can begin with one neighbourhood in a city, certain things like that. There are solutions around the world and people are learning, for example in Europe and the US from community life at the village level in Africa. After cities and countries exceed and move to overconsumption there is a shock and they think ‘something is wrong here’ and they go back, it is better to go back to the basics without being extremely conservative.
It is not enough but getting the ‘multiplier effect’ and ‘leapfrogging’ can be very quick but you might have a learning period or a transition period that can take a little longer. Once you overcome that you can turn it around quickly and that is what makes me a little bit optimistic.