Promoting a just transition to an inclusive circular economy

This latest report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at the circular economy transition and low-carbon transitions and digitalisation.

Many social and political issues have so far been neglected in planning for the circular economy transition. This paper aims to redress this by considering how ‘just transition’ and social equity may be achieved through policy and practice. The prevailing economic model is linear, in that resources are extracted, transformed into products, used, and finally discarded. In contrast, the circular economy recognizes that natural resources are finite, and aims to keep the materials in products in circulation for as long as possible: reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, sharing and recycling. While the concept of the circular economy is largely focused on developing new technologies and businesses to enable keeping materials in circulation, it also includes the notions of ‘designing out’ waste, substituting renewable materials for non-renewable ones, and restoring natural systems. The UN 2030 Agenda demonstrates that environmental, social and economic sustainability objectives cannot be separated. As the links between the environmental issues of climate change, overconsumption of resources and waste generation, and social issues of inequality and the future of work become increasingly obvious, the urgency to connect environmental with social justice is gaining in significance. The language of ‘just transition’ – a transition that ensures environmental sustainability, decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication – has started to penetrate debates and research on sustainability policy, particularly in the contexts of climate change and low-carbon energy transition. A just transition framework for the circular economy can identify opportunities that reduce waste and stimulate product innovation, while at the same time contributing positively to sustainable human development. And a just transition is needed to reduce inequalities within and between countries, and to ensure that the commitment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind is fulfilled. It is important to identify the likely impacts on employment as a result of digitalization and industrial restructuring. Combining circular economy policies with social protection measures will be important in order to ensure that the burden of efforts to promote circularity will not fall on the poor through worsening working conditions and health impacts, reduced livelihoods, or job losses. Identifying potential winners and losers through participatory ‘roadmapping’ can help shape effective cooperation mechanisms and partnerships nationally and internationally. Many low- and middle-income countries that rely heavily on ‘linear’ sectors such as mining, manufacturing of non-repairable fast-moving consumer goods, textiles and agriculture, and the export of these commodities to higher-income countries, are likely to be negatively affected by the shift to circularity. These countries will need support from the international community through targeted assistance programmes if international trade in established commodities and manufactures declines in the medium to long term. International cooperation to create effective and fair governance mechanisms, and policy coordination at regional, national and local levels will play an important role in shaping a just transition. Multilateral technical assistance programmes will need to be designed and implemented, in particular to support low- and middle-income countries. Governments, international development finance institutions and banks are among the bodies beginning to establish circular economy investment funds and programmes. Just transition principles are yet to be applied to many of these new finance mechanisms, and will need to be integrated into development finance to support the circular economy transition. New international cooperation programmes, and a global mechanism to mobilize dedicated support funds for countries in need, will be critical to successful implementation across global value chains. Transparent and accountable institutions will also be important in ensuring that just transition funds reach those affected as intended.

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