By Phoebe Cochrane
The Covid crisis and associated lockdown has brought into sharp focus many aspects of our life, our society and our economy; what is important to us and how well equipped we are to deal with sudden shocks. The recovery package being considered by the Scottish Government offers an opportunity to set our economy on a different trajectory – one that puts people and the environment first.
Prior to the recent abrupt downturn in economic activity, our economy was eating its way through the world’s natural resources at a rate that was both unsustainable from an environmental point of view and undesirable from an economic resilience point of view. The world’s consumption of materials has hit a record of 100 bn tonnes a year, and the proportion being recycled is falling – was the sobering headline from January’s Circularity Gap report.
What’s more, the quantity of raw materials consumed is a key driver of our climate and nature emergencies. The 2019 Global Resource Outlook shows that extracting and processing raw materials is responsible for half the world’s carbon emissions and 80% of biodiversity loss and the consumption of natural resources, which has tripled since the 1970’s, is set to further double by 2060. Unsurprisingly, Western societies are the main culprits. We are consuming far more than our fair share and if everyone lived like UK citizens, we would need about 3 Earths to sustain ourselves, according to ecological footprint data.
Currently we are incredibly wasteful – we generally grow or extract raw materials, make products, use them and then, at the end of their life, discard them. We need to re-programme our economy to extract less from the planet, reuse what we’ve already taken and reduce our waste. This is called a circular economy.
The economic fallout from Covid is going to be huge and governments around the world are thinking about recovery packages. The Scottish Government has committed to a green recovery. We need a more circular economy to be a key focus.
There is public support for this – people do not like waste and are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of our consumptive lifestyle. In a recent survey, over 70% of respondents agreed with the statement that Scotland needs an overall reduction in the amount of raw materials that are used.
Now is the time for a purposeful redirection to a less wasteful, and more circular, restorative and resilient economy.
To achieve this, the Government needs to draw on the expertise in Zero Waste Scotland where there is a wealth of knowledge on different aspects of a more circular economy. Government needs to follow the recommendations of the Infrastructure Commission and make sure that investments in infrastructure support and enable a less polluting and less wasteful economy. It needs to engage with repair and re-use enterprises, to learn about how best to support this sector – a recent survey shows that the Scottish public want repairable products and feel that the Scottish Government should make sure they have access to repair and reuse services as well as recycling services. It needs to think about supply chains and how to close loops. The current crisis has exposed the vulnerability of our global economy and international supply chains. It needs to remember that enterprises that use the land and sea need to be restorative and support those that actively look after the soil, biodiversity and the sea.
Also important in the recovery is what we don’t support. For too long, good initiatives have been supported alongside business as usual. It is time to be bold and decisive – governments need to invest in the infrastructure and enterprises that will contribute to the type of economy we aspire to and to not support practices that lock us into a linear, polluting and wasteful economy. Support for such enterprises, should be conditional on commitments and plans to change.
Let’s hope that a more circular economy is one of the positive outcomes of this difficult time.
Dr Phoebe Cochrane is the Sustainable Economics Officer at Scottish Environment LINK and leads on the project: A Circular Economy for a Fairer Footprint