Circular Economy – Making Sustainability Part of the Solution in Asia-Pacific

4 October 2018

The Asia-Pacific region, hosting two-thirds of the world’s growing population, is the powerhouse of global economic growth and industrialization. Coupled with pro-poor development policies, the region achieved unparalleled reduction in extreme poverty over the past few decades. Despite remarkable progress in health and livelihoods for millions of the most disadvantaged in the region, patterns of production and consumption have incurred devastating costs on the environment and ecosystems. While creating jobs and bolstering growth, new regional manufacturing hubs using inefficient production processes have placed increased strain on natural resources, ecosystems and communities. The region is also grappling with increasing untreated wastes and pollution, declining ocean health and human induced climate change -- impeding progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

How do we break an alarming trajectory to ensure no further environmental loss of biodiversity and ecosystems supporting human health and livelihoods? To address the unsustainable pattern of industrial development in many developing countries based on a “pollute first and clean up later” approach in Asia and the Pacific, the emerging Industrialization 4.0 needs to adopt more resource-efficient and non-linear approaches. Urgent proactivity, instead of reactivity, is needed to steer development onto an inclusive, environmentally sustainable pathway for the future.

One important approach advocated by ESCAP since 2005 as part of the regional low carbon green growth approach and being applied in regional countries is the circular economy. Departing from a linear production and consumption system of "take, make and dispose” that generates wastage into the earth, the circular economy offers a holistic, cyclical process which turns waste into a resource.

A product’s lifecycle thus begins with intentional shifts in thought, long before it enters production. A circular economy entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials at their highest value and in use, and regenerate natural systems.

Circular economy solutions can have economic, social, and environmental co-benefits through reduced demand for natural resources, reduced emissions, job creation and fostering innovation. Globally, a transition to circular economy approaches is estimated to provide more than US$ 1 trillion in material cost savings by 2025. In major consumer goods sectors, the magnitude of the material resource savings generated from a circular economy could result in up to US$ 706 billion annually. Considering that the Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than 60% of the global share of key fast-moving consumer goods sectors, the scale of potential benefits would positively impact the region’s economic development.

Environmentally, circular models have the potential to significantly reduce emissions from landfills and efficiently manage waste and wastewater. With over 50 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions currently related to material management, the circular economy may potentially close approximately half of the emissions gap between current policies and the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement.

Aside from the material resource savings, a circular economy can generate both skilled and un-skilled jobs. A global study estimates that in just three to four material flows, a circular economy transition alone can deliver at least 100,000 new jobs. Enterprises would also experience an enhanced rate of innovation as they are incentivized by the circular economy to innovate and improve the life-cycle of products.

One ESCAP initiative to promote the circular economy is addressing single use plastics, given the major environmental impact of plastic pollution throughout the region and on the oceans. Inclusive circular economy solutions for managing plastic waste can be particularly beneficial for Asia-Pacific cities by unlocking the potential of the informal sector.

To demonstrate the benefits of circular economy at the local level, ESCAP supports countries in the region with a “closing the loopapplication in regional countries aiming to mobilize the informal economy to recover plastic waste and reduce marine pollution.

High-level commitment to applying sustainable natural resource management approaches to national development plans was reinforced through an agreement at the 7th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific (5-8 September 2017). ESCAP research simulation and scenario modelling demonstrates the benefits of resource efficiency improvement in materials, energy and water. In response, ESCAP provides support to member states in their pursuit of integrated, coherent and inclusive policies to conserve natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia-Pacific.

Building upon progress, the forthcoming 5th Committee on Environment and Development on 21-23 November 2018 presents an opportunity for enhanced regional cooperation to harness these benefits and ensure a brighter future for the present and coming generations.

Inclusive circular economy solutions have a triple bottom line, with economic, social, and environmental benefits. Illustrating that sustainability is part of the solution, it is an important approach to promote sustainable natural resource management and inclusive socio-economic development.