Cities worldwide are increasingly suffering the effects of climate-related disasters, such as heatwaves, forest fires, floods, droughts and storms. Rapid emission cuts are needed to have a chance at meeting the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. While efforts to tackle the climate crisis have typically focused on the transition to renewable energy sources that can address 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions , the circular economy can potentially contribute to the remaining 45% by transforming the way we produce and use products and services.

For World Habitat Day 2021 , four SEI researchers working on the Urban Circularity Assessment Framework (UCAF) project reflect on how municipalities and the circular economy can contribute to reaching climate targets.

A circular economy creates opportunities for significant material, energy and emission reductions 

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis presents a momentum to change our current linear economic model and to rethink the way we extract resources, produce goods and provide services. The circular economy presents a holistic approach to tackle some of the most pressing challenges in cities, creating opportunities for a significant reduction in material, energy and emission levels. The circular economy comes with the promise of significant contributions to climate change mitigation efforts by combining improved material management, dematerialization and systemic change . It is necessary for governments to consider circularity in policy measures for meeting Paris Agreement targets.

Local governments play a crucial role in accelerating a transition towards a circular economy: for instance, through their ability to redesign urban planning and policy. However, they face major obstacles linked to facilitating cross-sectoral circular economy solutions – how can we move from vertical silo thinking to horizontal governance to accelerate the circular economy agenda? 

Municipalities play a central role in making sure no one is left behind in the circular economy transition 

As the urban population grows and will continue to do so in the coming decades, access to resources (energy, materials, and housing) is becoming more strained, as well as access to opportunities such as employment. Overall, inequalities in cities are increasing, including in Sweden, resulting in unsafe and therefore unstable and “unsustainable” cities. With cities now embarking on circular economy trajectories, setting up projects to reduce household and industrial waste and consumption, potentially through the sharing economy, it is essential to understand how people will be affected and to then ensure that no one is left behind. 

Municipal governments can play a central role in ensuring that everyone wins from circular economy transitions: they are not only responsible for waste and energy management, but also for economic development and social welfare, so they can therefore influence how circular economy trajectories are designed across cities. 

A key aspect of the transition to a circular economy should be to encourage people to be smarter consumers

Cities have a responsibility to promote the circular economy to its citizens. However, a key aspect is that cities should encourage people to be smarter consumers in order to reduce wasteful practices and reduce manufacturing and transport carbon footprints. Rich cities tend to emphasize recycling and reusing along with expanding solid waste, sewage treatment capacities, roads and infrastructure. 

A new idea is to look at planetary boundary limits and national and international targets to cap consumption and reduce carbon footprints. When it comes to affecting individual behaviours, there are several actions that can lead to major changes – restricting parking private cars on city streets and making public transport a first choice, building bike lanes that make commuting attractive, the provision of community-accessible recycling and reuse collection bins and introducing circularity to students in the school system to reinforce good habits from the beginning. 

A circular economy is a key strategy in achieving the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement and can reduce or even prevent future climate risks

Meeting the climate targets requires a transformation in how we produce and consume goods, in which the circular economy is a prominent strategy. Circularity serves as a great climate mitigation tool, as it is designed to reduce greenhouse emissions across value chains whilst promoting renewable resources. The shift from a linear to circular economy can reduce global consumption and consequently reduce greenhouse emission rates associated with raw material extraction, manufacturing, and transportation.

The circular economy is a key strategy in achieving the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement and can reduce or even prevent, future climate risks. Circularity can pave the way to a future resilient societies across the globe. 

In the Urban Circularity Assessment Framework project, we work alongside two cities in Sweden to understand the circular economy initiatives they are undertaking, and what the societal consequences of those initiatives are. Understanding the connections between the various stocks and flows in cities and moving beyond a focus on material and energy use, we also aim to analyze the interaction and opportunities for more circular economy across sectors. Overall, this could help municipal governments in the design, planning and implementation  of circular economy projects and help scale circular economy projects throughout the city.