The quick formation of the EU Green Deal has set an unprecedented pace of climate action. This ambitious roadmap provides key actions to transform all 27 EU countries from high-carbon to low-carbon economies. Central to this roadmap is the New Circular Economy Action Plan, released in March this year, which sets out concrete actions on how to create circular business models, consumption patterns and production processes in the EU.

Going circular is predicted to be beneficial for the environment and generate substantial economic savings. Transitioning to a circular economy in the mobility, food, and infrastructure sectors alone is estimated to reduce emissions by 48% by 2030, and 85% by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015). The EU on the other hand has estimated that its circular economy package could save around €600 billion through waste prevention, eco-design and by enabling reuse.

Cities are key actors in the transition to a circular economy

The New Circular Economy Action Plan only briefly mentions the role of cities in transitioning to circularity. Cities take up less than 4% of the Earth’s surface yet they host 55% of global population (UN World Urbanization Prospects 2018). In 2016, about 2.5 billion tonnes of waste was generated in the EU member states alone; about 5 tonnes of waste per person on average. About 70% of this waste was generated in cities (EC Eurostat).

While circular waste management is much discussed, there are other factors that make cities a key node in transitioning to the circular economy. Cities account for most global energy consumption (80%) and natural resource consumption (75%) (UNEP-DTIE Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch, 2015). To shift these systems toward circularity three needs must be addressed. Firstly, there is a need for tools that help cities quantify their level of circularity and understand how all their systems interact. Secondly, there must be a practical definition for circularity that can be used as a yardstick for progress, and lastly cities must be able to plan and mitigate any adverse effects of the transition to circularity.

How circular are we?

To date there is no comprehensive and easy applicable framework that quantifies how circular a city’s economy is, or its potential for circularity. Current frameworks, such as the EU monitoring framework for circular economy at the national level, the Circle Economy framework at city level, or the business level tool Circulytics, all contain qualitative assessments and indicators. This means that while cities may currently be able to understand where there is circularity in a particular area, they do not have the tools to assess how circular this specific area is.

Without tools that provide quantitative data cities will not be able to improve their current level of circularity nor adequately plan how to integrate circularity across several areas or sectors in order to truly create a circular city.This is the first gap cities face in transitioning to circularity: the absence of tools that capture the complexity of material and energy flows, and how these systems interrelate.

The SEI-led project Urban Circularity Assessment Framework (UCAF) aims to fill these three gaps and facilitate the transition to circular cities. The project team will co-create a quantitative framework that will account for all system flows in a city and allow cities to collect the necessary data and to make adjustments by sector. Starting by mapping the circular strategies of several European cities the project team has found that while there are similarities in the plans of cities there are differences in approaches, timescales and in the kinds of projects that are implemented.

For cities to become circular they must be able to account for all their systems, not just waste, and understand how these systems interact. Image: Alvaro Reyes / Unsplash

What constitutes a circular city?

There is no uniform understanding of what a circular city is making it difficult to assess if a city is truly circular- this is the second gap. Current definitions include: “a city that practices circular economy principles to close resource loops, in partnership with the city’s stakeholders to realize its vision of a future-proof city” (Prendeville et al 2018). Or a more elaborate definition by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, where a circular city ”embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions, establishing an urban system that is regenerative, accessible and abundant by design. These cities aim to eliminate the concept of waste, keep assets at their highest value at all times, and are enabled by digital technology. ” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017).

For cities to call themselves circular, we advocate for a practical definition to be further developed to include system boundaries, define scale, and identify hotspot sectors and urban functions to address. Urban functions conventionally include residential, productive, social, commuting, recreational, and administrative activities, while more recently ecosystem services and climate functions of urban spaces have also been recognized.

From the perspective of planning for circularity, it is important to evaluate and select various options and considerations that define a city’s boundaries, which could be based on the spatial, administrative or functional level of individual urban systems.

Cities must make sure that the transition to a circular economy won’t adversely affect different groups in society. Image: Alex Liew/ Getty Images

Ensuring a just transition

Transitioning to the circular economy will undoubtedly impact businesses and citizens. Currently it is unclear how the transition will affect different groups in society and to what extent, and whether there is a need for redistributive measures to mitigate the impacts of transition.

Accounting for the social and economic impacts and making sure that the transition does not adversely affect certain groups of people will be an essential aspect to the transition. We will need to go beyond developing technical systems and also focus on inclusiveness, where the shift to a circular economy considers the cultural, economic, political and social dimensions of different regional contexts (IISD, 2019).

This is the third gap UCAF aims to fill. By mapping the impact of the transition to a circular economy for businesses citizens and policymakers, cities will be able to gauge the societal effects of the transition, uncover any adverse effects and adjust accordingly.

Together we can do more

Cities hold massive potential for jumpstarting the global transition to a circular economy. The city of Amsterdam just recently launched its circular economy strategy pushing for a shift away from resource extraction-based economy. Aside from technical tools, cities will also need access to knowledge and a network to learn from.

The UCAF framework will be co-created by a team of researchers, city planners and private sector representatives. The team is also reaching out to other cities in the EU, actively learning from their processes and exchanging lessons learned. If you would like to know more about the UCAF project or would like to contribute contact the project lead Dr Fedra Vanhuyse at fedra.vanhuyse@sei.org.

We thank Vinnova for the funding under their climate-neutral societies’ call.

Read more about the UCAF project here.