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Measurable targets for all material use and restrictions for virgin materials needed

Without a significantly stronger circular economy, global economic development will lead to a doubling of annual material resources use from 79 to 167 Gt and a growth in annual carbon dioxide emissions from 40 to 75 Gt by 2060, vastly surpassing the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming target set in the Paris Agreement.


Ernesto Hartikainen


This is a story about the future of human civilisation.

One of the main mantras of the United Nations and the sustainable development agenda has been that of decoupling. Decoupling can be either relative or absolute. Technically speaking, absolute decoupling happens when two variables, such as economic growth and resource use, move in opposing directions: the economy grows while resource use shrinks in absolute terms. Resource decoupling is one of the goals of the circular economy and is included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The OECD launched their Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060 at the World Circular Economy Forum 2018 in Yokohama, Japan. Assuming current policies and an average global economic growth gradually decreasing to 2.5% by 2060, the amount of material resources required to sustain economic growth would inflate immensely, more than doubling from 79 Gt in 2011 to 167 Gt in 2060.

The result would be that carbon emissions grow from 40 to 75 Gt per year by 2060 with material management comprising 50 Gt of this, in complete opposition to what should be happening. The IPCC special report on Global Warming of 1.5⁰C has estimated the remaining carbon budget to be 550 Gt for a 66% chance and 750 Gt for a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5⁰C. The current trend in materials use and resulting greenhouse gas emissions would therefore eat up the remaining carbon budget in less than 20 years. At worst, this could already happen before 2029.

Frankly, it sounds terrible. So, what can be done?

The projected emissions resulting from materials management are mainly due to the emission-intensive nature of agriculture, energy supply and industry. A recent study commissioned by Sitra showed that circularity, meaning material recycling, product material efficiency and systems productivity, can reduce emissions from the use and production of steel, cement, aluminium and plastics by up to 56% by 2050. Without circularity, the 1.5 degrees Celsius target would not be met even if the most energy-efficient production technologies were used. Combining the circular economy with low-carbon energy and negative emissions from technical and natural carbon sinks we still have a chance.

In addition to climate targets, we need measurable targets for materials use. The SDGs that have been adopted by all 193 UN members include a goal for achieving sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, specifically SDG 12.2. In addition, SDG 8.4 aims for absolute decoupling of materials use and environmental degradation from GDP growth. However, the SDGs completely lack a measurable level to indicate when this sustainable management of natural resources would be achieved.

Tools for decoupling needed

To form a strong basis for effective leadership, we should set measurable global target levels for the main categories of material resources, if nothing else, based on a global material consumption level that would keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius or at least well below 2 degrees Celsius. Nationally determined targets could then be set in a similar way to the NDCs in the Paris Agreement. Climate targets and material resource targets are mutually reinforcing: they would support each other.

We must also rid ourselves of linear thinking when measuring and evaluating materials use.

We need to clearly differentiate between the extraction of virgin materials and the use and reuse of material resources.

When measuring material demand, virgin and reused materials are easily lumped together. We should aim to minimise the extraction of virgin material resources and meet the future growing material demand with reused and secondary materials that are already present in the stocks of our existing economies. Statistics need to better reflect this distinction for effective policymaking and resource management. In relation to materials use, our primary focus should be on absolute decoupling of virgin non-renewable material resources from economic growth.

A much stronger and inclusive circular economy is essential

To prevent the worst effects of global warming, we need an overhaul of our economic paradigm. One option would be a global economy in which we keep the principles of free markets and competition but limit the extraction of virgin material resources to a level where they are able to renew themselves. In a way, this thinking isn’t that radical. We shouldn’t spend more than we have. We also have fiscal tools for limiting the extraction of virgin materials, such as taxation.

These types of environmental-economic policies should also be supported by a social policy that considers the impacts on people in underprivileged communities: a social policy that encourages circular economy-based infrastructure investments in developing regions, increases assistance to the least-developed countries and the poor, and guarantees the re-education of those working in an obsolete linear economy.

Even though we might be facing challenging times for these ideas, with leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro seemingly focused on the past, we shouldn’t fear taking bigger leaps towards a new and different type of economy that serves the interests of the many rather than the few. In fact, we are running out of time and it’s now too late to just take moderate steps forward.

With courage and conviction, we can create a future human civilisation that is different and much better than the one we live in today.

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