By Dr Phoebe Cochrane, sustainable economics officer at Scottish Environment LINK
This week, MEPs voted for the introduction of two legally binding targets to reduce material and consumption footprints by 2030 and bring EU consumption within planetary boundaries by 2050. The European Commission will now consider how to take this forward.
Scotland should follow suit. Like Europe, we should be aiming to reduce our consumption of raw materials to sustainable levels – we have a moral, as well as an environmental, duty to do so. We currently use about 3 times our share of global resources and the quantity and nature of goods we use has a huge environmental impact.
MEPS voted overwhelmingly to back mandatory material reduction targets.
Impacts are caused by both the extraction and processing of resources to make products and the associated waste and pollution. Globally, 80 – 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress is caused by resource extraction and processing, and consumption of natural resources has tripled since the 1970s and is set to further double by 2060. Now is the time for Western countries, those that typically consume far more per capita, to curb their throw-away habits and use materials far more wisely.
Until we do this, we won’t end our contribution to climate change. Approximately 80% of Scotland’s carbon footprint is from emissions embedded in goods we consume. If products were made to last a long time, and repairing, re-using and recycling was the norm and waste was minimal, our emissions would be much reduced.
It is not only environmental NGOs who are concerned about the unsustainable nature of resource extraction rates. Security of supply of raw materials is a core interest of business and the rising costs of raw materials is a primary concern of Scottish business leaders.
Our economy is currently mainly linear – take, make, use, dispose. A circular economy offers a new approach, based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Unfortunately, although the idea of a circular economy is innately appealing, we need government policy to make it happen. We also need to know that the policy initiatives are making a difference to the things that matter. It is great to increase our recycling rates, but if we are not then substituting recyclate for secondary raw materials; and using less raw materials overall; we won’t address the climate and nature crises. We can still enjoy new and different goods, but they need to be made and used differently.
Scottish Environment LINK, together with a coalition of other organisations, has been calling on the Scottish government to introduce consumption reduction targets. We need our government to:
- Publish data on the quantities and types of materials we are using and wasting;
- Set targets to reduce our overall consumption of raw materials;
- Produce plans that detail how this will be achieved and how to deal with problematic materials.
We hope the next Scottish government will bring forward a Circular Economy Bill this year and demonstrate its alignment with progress in Europe, with a focus on reducing our overall consumption. Action on raw material use must be central to Scotland’s efforts both to tackle climate change and to reverse global biodiversity loss.
Steps towards a circular economy
Designing out waste and pollution. The way that products are designed is really important – they must be designed such that their life-cycle environmental impact is minimised; so that they can be used for as long as possible; and so that, if there is any ‘waste’, it can be recycled and become a resource – a secondary raw material or a compost to replenish our soil.
Keeping products and materials in use. Products, such as buildings, cars, furniture, clothes or electronic goods, must be designed so that they are easy to repair and reuse, straight forward to disassemble and their component parts and the materials from which they are made are all re-useable or recyclable. Also, products that are typically idle much of the time, such as private cars or tools, are better shared, through clubs or libraries.
Regenerating natural systems. Instead of being extractive and polluting, our economy must be regenerative, and pay particular attention to the condition of our soil. Agriculture and other land uses must be regenerative, returning carbon and other nutrients to the soil.