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Reduce, Re-use, Recycle: Enabling sustainable patterns of production and consumption

Submitted by on 28 Sep 2015 – 09:02

Implementing innovative measures to “decouple” natural resource use from economic growth is paramount, and one way to do so is adopting the circular economy model. Dr Ligia Noronha, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics calls for a shift from a ‘take, make, dispose’ approach

Ligia Noronha The 20th century saw huge increases in demand for natural resources as industrialization and urbanization spread around the world. While current patterns of resource exploitation already exceed the Earth’s biological capacity, it is expected that, by 2050, humanity could consume approximately 140 million tonnes of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass each year – three times the current level— thus risking to jeopardize the fundamental economic, social and environmental systems on which our livelihoods and development rely.

With a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, 1.2 billion people in the world still living in extreme poverty and a growing number of extreme weather events, the challenges for humanity are mounting. In the 21st century more and more people are expected to move off the land and into cities, with some three-quarters of the world’s population expected to be urbanized by 2050.

According to the projections offered by the International Resource Panel (IRP), it is estimated that 60 percent of the infrastructure necessary to meet the need of city dwellers is yet to be built, and that urban population will consume 75 percent of global energy, 75 percent of extracted natural resources, and will be responsible for about 75 percent of global CO2 emissions and global waste generation.

Generating more sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and better managing the planet’s natural resources are measures that cannot be further procrastinated.Implementing innovative measures to “decouple” natural resource use from economic growth is paramount, and one way to do so is adopting the circular economy model, which would guide our societies in the shift from a “take, make, dispose” to a “reduce, re-use, recycle” approach.

Making cities as building blocks for sustainable development

UNEP’s Global Initiative for Resource-Efficient Cities (GI-REC) recognizes the significant contribution of local government and city-level action to bringing about the kind of radical change that will be needed to switch to a circular economy. GI-REC supports cities in reducing their environmental impact on the production and consumption of goods and services, from raw material extraction to final use and disposal, based upon a circular economy model. In the building sector, for instance, this means considering the whole life cycle of a product or service, including design, materials production, transport, construction, use and maintenance, renovation, deconstruction, recycling and re-using.

The closed-loop concept
Promoted by UNEP, it is already being demonstrated in Linköping, Sweden, where the bus system runs on biogas obtained from wastewater treatment plants, landfills and a biogas production facility that uses agricultural crop residues and manure. Some 100,000 tonnes of waste is treated each year, 4.7 million tonnes of upgraded biogas is produced, and 9000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission are saved.

To make the transition to a circular economy cities will need to set specific targets on efficient resource use, formulate plans to reach those targets, and be supported in the development of an enabling framework to encourage innovation at local level.

At UNEP we are also contributing to this process by means of a variety of complementary and mutually reinforcing initiatives and instruments, including the District Energy in Cities Initiative, the Life-Cycle Assessment and the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production.

The 10YFP is a grouping of programmes, hosted by UNEP, which by working with governments, policy-makers, industry associations, citizens and other groups, aims to accelerate the transition to global sustainable consumption and production patterns. At the moment, we have programmes that aim to find sustainable ways forward on consumer information, lifestyles and education, public procurement, buildings and construction, tourism and eco-tourism, and, by the end of the year, on food systems.

Reflecting the central role that waste minimization has in the circular economy, UNEP will release his month (September) the Global Waste Management Outlook, a landmark report that is the first comprehensive, impartial and in-depth assessment of global waste management. It reflects the collective body of recent scientific knowledge, drawing on the work of leading experts and the vast body of research undertaken within and beyond the United Nations system.

The time has come to recognize that the environment is a vital base on which all economic activities depend. New and better ways of managing our natural resources are necessary. The resources offered by our planet are much too valuable to discard: they should be used, not abused – and never left to waste.

Dr Ligia Noronha is Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics.