A circular economy is one that designs most pollution and waste out of the system, extracts maximum value from resources and allows natural capital to regenerate. This would not only protect the environment, but also contribute to economic growth, increasing GDP by up to 7% in the EU by 2030 – according to a recent study of the Ellen McArthur Foundation. But how can countries transition from a linear, resource-intensive system to a fully circular economy?
Exploring these issues, the UNECE Committee on Innovation, Competitiveness and Public-Private Partnerships met in Geneva on 26-28 March 2018 to discuss ways to make production and consumption more sustainable, as outlined in Sustainable Development Goal 12.
Innovation and partnerships, including Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), are instrumental in making consumption and production more sustainable. There are numerous examples of new technologies, processes, services and business models that are re-shaping product life cycles from design through production and usage to disposal and recycling. Businesses across the region have invested extensively in this direction.
Yet, there is only so much that the private sector can do on its own to bring about a systemic transition. Partnerships among governments, the private sector and civil society are often useful to explore new regulatory models and co-ordinate different economic activities. UNECE is advocating for People First Public-Private Partnerships, exploring new ideas and arrangements to increase access to essential services, lessen social inequalities and preserve the environment while transforming the economy.
Fully realising the potential of innovation and partnerships requires dedicated and sustained policy efforts to create the right enabling frameworks and incentives. Policy interventions include standards, labelling systems, procurement policy, regulatory innovation, platforms and technical and financial support to business.
There is a range of experiences from the UNECE region to draw upon. The 2015 EU Circular Economy Package includes around 50 measures from production and consumption to waste management and markets for secondary raw material. Finland, for example, is one of the pioneers of innovative partnerships for a circular economy and has adopted an ambitious national roadmap.
Cities and regions can provide venues for experimenting with different partnerships and solutions and have the flexibility and scope for policy experimentation. Their high business and consumer density, their universities and research institutes and connectivity, make them ideal locations for innovation hubs, incubator spaces and urban farming.
Initiatives in Astana, Birmingham, Nokia, and Lyon demonstrated how city-level innovative partnerships can drive the transition towards sustainable production and consumption. Birmingham’s industrial symbiosis approach, part of its overall sustainable economic development strategy, promotes the use of waste materials and by-products as inputs in production in other parts of the economy. Lyon’s “Chemistry Valley” has emerged around a diversified and integrated multi-site activity in chemistry, energy and the environment.
Transition economies have opportunities to leapfrog to higher levels of sustainable development, bypassing resource-intensive development paths. The transition will create new employment opportunities, through increased innovation and entrepreneurship and a new service based economy. For example, the adoption of digital technologies in waste management modernization in the Russian Federation has brought down cumulative damage and allowed the re-cultivation of old landfills, with yearly savings of 420 million US dollars. The City of Astana has adopted smart city solutions, through an ICT – enabled ecosystem to improve living conditions of its citizens and visitors.
UNECE supports economies in transition in their efforts to design and implement such policies through policy analysis, recommendations, regional policy dialogue and capacity building. For instance, it will publish the Innovation for Sustainable Development Review of Kyrgyzstan and develop an Innovation Strategy for Sustainable Development for the SPECA region. Furthermore, UNECE is undertaking fundraising efforts for the launch of a capacity building initiative on PPPs to support UNECE member States participating in the Belt and Road initiative in 2018–2019.