Saving climate and biodiversity: there is no alternative but to rely on circular economy

The linear economy model is still dominant, following a long-lasting mechanism: extraction (of materials), manufacturing (of products), consumption, and waste. The illusion of infinite resources is at the core of this model but this is no longer sustainable, nor efficient.

This model is unsustainable. The extraction of large quantities of natural resources, whether used in the composition of a good, or to generate the energy necessary to produce that good, is depleting the planet’s resources at an accelerating rate.

Today, the world economy extracts nearly 100 billion tons of natural resources per year to satisfy our needs and meet our demands, whereas this figure was around 25 billion tons in 1970. At the same time, the world population has nearly doubled. This means that, on average, maintaining the our lifestyle we used to today requires the extraction of twice as many natural resources as our grandparents did 50 years ago.

This progression is dizzying, and the resulting climate change and erosion of biodiversity are existential threats.

This model is inefficient, obviously a source of enormous waste: a very small tiny part of the extracted resources is put back into circulation at the end of their use, which generates an accumulation of waste that is the source of land and sea pollution that threatens biodiversity. In reaction to this “disposable” model in a world of dwindling resources, it is becoming imperative to invent another productive model. The circular economy is a possible answer, and everything contributing to its development must be encouraged.

It relies, first, on responsible producers and consumers who are aware of and sensitive to environmental impacts.

A responsible producer integrates environmental protection right from the product design stage to ensure that it optimizes the ecological impact over the product’s entire life cycle until it becomes waste. It is transforming the production tool to produce the same good with fewer natural resources extracted (for example, by using less energy and incorporating more recycled materials), guaranteeing better reparability, extending the life span, and ensuring recyclability.

France is recognized as a forerunner in eco-design. The anti-waste law for a circular economy of 2020 set a binding framework for the most polluting sectors. Those sectors are, in particular, subject to a bonus-malus system that encourages them to progressively increase the proportion of recycled materials in products marketed, and to ensure that products are more recyclable, reusable, and repairable.

The consumer’s responsibility presupposes that he has precise and reliable information on the environmental impact of his consumption. The French law foresees that an environmental score will soon have to appear on everyday consumer products, such as food products or textiles. Based on several case studies that support the idea, we make the bet that a well-informed consumer will modify his behavior in his diet, for example, to reduce his environmental footprint. And in return, this should encourage the producer to adapt to these new consumer demands for products with a low environmental impact. This can become an element of non-price competitiveness of the companies that will have chosen a qualitative offer on the ecological level. A virtuous circle can therefore be set in motion between producers and consumers, with the role of the public authorities being to guarantee the reliability of the information to avoid misleading commercial practices.

A better-informed consumer will also be more likely to receive positively, and no longer as a constraint, the demands for more sobriety. Today, we talk mainly about energy sobriety, but the concept can be extended to all household consumption items.

There is also a geopolitical dimension to the circular economy. The scarcity of raw materials and the dependence of our economies on increasingly expensive and uncertain external supplies can call into question our sovereignty and capacity for resilience.

Most of the materials used in our digital tools, or those needed for the energy transition (lithium for electric batteries or permanent magnets using rare earths for wind turbines), are located in China. Therefore, the transition to a circular economy is necessary to strengthen our economies by optimizing their use of resources.

Circular economy is also a source of jobs that can hardly be relocated. Changing the economic model makes it possible to envision ways of reconverting declining sectors. We create local jobs by developing an economy of repair, reuse, and recycling. Some estimates show that France could create up to 500,000 jobs by substantially reducing our consumption of natural resources.

Governments can also create financial conditions for the development of the circular economy. In compliance with European rules, reduced VAT rates in the repair sector could provide the necessary impetus.