Blog: Climate Change and the Circular Economy in Wales

Brain Mayne reflects on the recent webinar by CIWM Cymru Wales supported by the Welsh Government on ‘Climate Change and the Circular Economy in Wales’ as part of the Wales Climate Week which attracted an audience of 226 people.

The webinar explored the relationship between climate change and the circular economy and considered how more efficient resource use, and a more resilient circular economy, can help Wales reduce emissions and support the country’s net zero carbon aims.

Dr. Andy Rees OBE Head of Waste Strategy, Welsh Government started proceedings with a presentation on ‘Decarbonisation and a circular economy’. He informed delegates of Wales’ commitment to tackling climate change in the document ‘Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales’ which sets out 100 policies and proposals that directly reduce emissions and support the growth of the low carbon economy.

He also reminded everyone that the Welsh Government had declared a climate emergency in 2019 to strengthen and galvanise climate change action at home and internationally. Andy also pointed out that in line with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change they had increased Wales’ 2050 target to a 95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions[1].

Andy importantly outlined that early efforts to tackle carbon consumption have focused on the transition to renewable energy, complemented by energy efficiency. He referenced the Ellen Macarthur Foundation[2] report which states that these measures can only address 55% of emissions. It goes on to highlight that the remaining 45% comes from producing cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day.  This is an area where the circular economy can play a major role in reducing the impacts by transforming the way these products can be made and used. He recognised, however, that in terms of consumption and the products sold by retailers in Wales, there are material cycles or circles at different geographical levels.

The presentation also covered the value of measuring and monitoring success and set out the reporting requirements of the Environment Act which requires an estimate of the total amount of Welsh consumer emissions of greenhouse gases that may reasonably be attributed to the consumption of goods and services in Wales during a set period.

He reminded everyone of the importance of prevention and reuse over other forms of resource management when considering greenhouse gas impacts. These are key ambitions of Beyond Recycling, the circular economy strategy which has recently been the subject of a public consultation, and which sought ideas and positive contributions to move Wales to become a zero waste, net zero carbon nation that uses its fair share of resources and seizes the economic opportunities from the transition to a circular economy.

Practical examples were provided of the innovative use of materials already taking place in Wales including a wooden car, as well as activities illustrating how prevention and reuse were being delivered. In addition, a number of the initiatives of current Welsh government support were highlighted such as the funding support being provided across all sectors of the community to create a circular economy in Wales.

Finally, he concluded with a number of rhetorical questions that he encouraged the audience to consider:

  • How does Wales decarbonise products consumed in Wales that are manufactured and sold globally?
  • How do we convince/incentivise citizens to buy low carbon, resource efficient products?
  • Is bioplastic a feasible, and environmentally benign solution?
  • Is compostable plastic a sensible solution?
  • What role should there be for renewable energy through combusting renewable waste (e.g. wood waste?)

Andy’s’ presentation was followed by Iain Gulland, Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland with a presentation entitled ‘Climate change and the circular economy’.

Iain explained how ZWS was accelerating the circular economy in Scotland through a range of activities including business support, funding and training.

Similarly, to Andy, Iain identified the need to measure progress and highlighted the  Carbon Metric Scotland has developed to quantify the whole-life carbon impacts of the country’s waste, from resource extraction and manufacturing emissions, right through to waste management emissions, regardless of where in the world these impacts occur.

He pointed out the large carbon impact of food waste which as a result has seen Scotland adopting a target to reduce all food waste arising in Scotland by 33% by 2025. This target includes both avoidable and unavoidable food waste and focuses on prevention.

Iain was keen to clarify how we make  the bridge between waste and climate change more apparent to everyone. He believed we should stop talking about waste and talk more about resources and materials and, like Andy, how we decarbonise not just their use but the production of the materials in the first place.

He highlighted the need to invest in renewables and in particular the need to look at the materials used. One material identified was green steel[3], the steelmaking process which lowers greenhouse gas emissions as well as cutting costs and improving quality.

Iain also pointed out that the circular economy offers a way forward that can help COVID-19-hit businesses futureproof their operations, making them less vulnerable to future supply chain issues, while also generating opportunities for inward investment and new ‘green’ jobs. He cited the creativity of the whisky distillers around Scotland who launched an initiative to help with the supply of hand sanitiser to front-line services. He also raised the findings from the report, entitled The Future of Work: Baseline Employment Analysis and Skills Pathways for the Circular Economy, which shows that  8.1% of jobs are already linked to the circular economy in Scotland.

The report also sets out a vision of the future of work in three priority areas – construction, the bioeconomy and capital projects, such as decommissioning energy infrastructure from oil rigs to wind turbines.

He concluded that everyone has a role in delivering a circular economy and therefore need to be aware of their actions. In addition, he said that COVID-19 has shown us that we need to do things differently and that we can adapt and that these lessons can play a critical role in ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change.

Iain presentation was followed by the first poll of the webinar which asked the audience to consider what they would like to see introduced to reduce the whole life cycle carbon emissions of material use. Half of whom identified that mandating embedded carbon standards was their preferred option of those provided.

James Close, Head of Programme, Circular London, London Waste and Recycling Board was the first to respond. He concluded that all of the options need to be introduced if we are to seriously tackle climate change and transition to a low-carbon circular economy.

Dr. Angelina Sanderson Bellamy, Senior Research Fellow, Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University was the next speaker and emphasised that food reform is vital for climate goals. Angelina highlighted that she was the co-author of a report ‘A Welsh Food System Fit For Future Generations’ commissioned by WWF Cymru. The report states that a well-functioning food system is crucial to our nation’s future. It’s central to our health and wellbeing, our culture, society and economy. Environmentally, it’s an important part of addressing the climate and nature crises we now face.

This was followed by a poll on food where the audience voted that labels that identified that foods and beverages were ‘local’ conveyed a positive impact on climate change.

Interestingly the panel identified that food miles have the smallest impact on emissions and that by changing our diet to being plant based is likely to have a significant impact, however, it was recognised that locally produced food provides numerous benefits but the biggest challenge was to ensure that we produce local, low carbon nutritional food.

The final poll found that nearly two-thirds of the audience believed that to a large extent,  we need to address consumption based emissions to accelerate the reduction of carbon and other greenhouse gases to embed circular economy principles to accelerate the shift to zero carbon cities.

This led to a discussion around how Glasgow Chamber of Commerce (GCOC) and London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) are teaming up to develop and promote initiatives that will help businesses across the UK future-proof their operations by using circular economy principles to achieve their cities’ climate change targets. It was highlighted that a number of Welsh cities have set ambitious plans designed to drive them towards becoming carbon neutral and perhaps there was an opportunity for them to be involved in future initiatives.

There was no doubt that all of the presenters identified and provided examples that the circular economy provides us with tools and practices that can tackle consumption-based emissions and help us contribute to keeping climate change to safe levels.

A key theme was how much different nations we can learn from each other and that collaboration can help accelerate action; therefore, we need to continue to share best practice, learnings and case studies of projects that show the impact of circular economy initiatives on reducing CO2 emissions.

Author Brian Mayne is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and Chartered Institution of Wastes Management. He is a Chartered Environmentalist and is recognised by the International Solid Waste Association as an International Waste Manager. Brian is a director of HJL Environmental a boutique environmental consultancy that offers bespoke solutions, training and advice. He also lectures and trains on a range of environmental subjects. He is a visiting lecturer in Environmental Policy and Management at the School of Engineering, Cardiff University.

[1] The Senedd  (Welsh Parliament) will be asked to amend the target in Spring 2021.

[2] Completing the picture how the Circular Economy tackles climate change: Ellen Macarthur Foundation (2019)

[3] The production of steel is one of the most energy-intensive of all industrial activities, and also responsible for a good portion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Green steel is made by melting existing scrap steel in electric arc furnaces.

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