Climate Change | Analysis and New Insights

Looking Beyond Borders: The Circular Economy Pathway for Pursuing 1.5°C

Jelmer Hoogzaad and Matthieu Bardout | March 2018


Since the Paris Agreement adopted the 1.5° C limit to global warming, policymakers and civil society have worked to identify the most important pathways to keeping this goal alive. The major emissions reductions needed to achieve this heavy lift have been recognized. However, these emissions reductions often target the source of emissions. While this is a reasonable approach, additional mitigation opportunities exist beyond the point where emissions are created.

Transformational ideas add new climate action possibilities to the table and increase the likelihood of staying under 1.5° C. One set of policy options in particular, known as the circular economy, offers promise for cutting the current emissions gap significantly. Circular economy policies go beyond the source of emissions to socioeconomic practices that create the demand for emissions in the first place.

This strategy involves moving beyond the current linear economic models, which extract materials, produce goods, sell them for consumption, and then discard them. Instead, the loop is closed and materials are reused, avoiding the environmentally harmful extraction and disposal of resources. Importantly, undertaking circular economy strategies can be accomplished while improving livelihoods and economies, and are often attractive from a business perspective.

Circular economy models have been embraced by some subnational actors, especially cities; however, they have not been examined in much detail by the international climate community.

This policy analysis brief lays out the global materials flows—including fossil fuels—and describes how a linear process of material extraction, use, and disposal drives GHG emissions. It explores examples of circular economy policies and technologies with high mitigation potential and shows the small extent to which these are considered in climate policy or international cooperation under the Paris Agreement. Tapping into this potential requires that circular economy concepts become an integral part of national policies, international cooperation, and metrics under the Paris Agreement. Finally, this brief makes key recommendations for national policies and action under the architecture of the Paris Agreement.