We live in very challenging times. A growing population that is also accustomed to a certain lifestyle and to large extent driven by conspicuous consumption over the last couple of centuries has led us to an unhealthy and unsustainable environment that is waiting to be healed and restored.
Since the industrial revolution started in the mid-18th century, the world population has grown from around 800 million to 7.8 billion today—a near tenfold explosion in a little over two centuries. Experts in the field of environment and climate science tell us that our planet has warmed up by anywhere between 1-2 degrees, depending on who we listen to. Today, we also know that less than 3 percent of the total fossil fuel carbon dioxide emission had happened until that point if we take the period between1850-90 to be the baseline.
We are looking at environmental degradation since the beginning of the industrial revolution for two main reasons. Our way of living has undergone complete change since around this period and in many ways, this has been the root cause of the current situation i.e., environment-wise. The industrial landscape that once brought to us rich bounties (and continues to do so) has also dragged along environmental challenges which is now threatening our way of life. The World Health Organization is telling us that 90 percent of humanity is breathing polluted air!
The World Environment Day 2021 that we celebrate today (June 5) is the first one in this new decade that has been declared by the UN as Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (#GenerationRestoration). According to the UN, “the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean.”
Around 4.7 million hectares of forests are lost every year and there has not been a more urgent need to revive the damaged ecosystem in every continent to combat climate change, prevent mass extinction and most importantly end poverty. According to Geneva Environment Network, restoration of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem by 2030 can not only generate $9 trillion of ecosystem services but could also remove 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases which in turn could generate huge economic benefits.
Creating and actively participating in the circular economy is one of the most powerful tools we possess today to revolutionise the way we produce (whether it is agricultural, industrial or service) and consume. This holistic approach not only reduces environmental degradation to a significant proportion but also prepares for the future. According to World Economic Forum, the circular economy presents a market opportunity of $4.5 trillion by 2030. Scaling up the innovation for reuse of materials back into the value chain is the ultimate soul of a complete circular economy and thereby optimising the usage of natural resources.
According to the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy provides a systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.
There are few models of a circular economy to choose from. One of them is to create a circular supply chain wherein renewable and recyclable materials can be used across the value chain. The recovery and recycling model on the other hand encourages the elimination of wastage once the product is not in use anymore. This can significantly involve the re-usage of basic and essential components that can be employed in some other activity. The model also leans towards product life extension and sharing platform by which each and every product’s life cycle can be improved in more economical ways such as upgrades, remanufacturing, repairs and improvising in the usage of assets and resources by sharing instead of the traditional ownership model.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation also estimates that today globally only 14 percent of the plastic is recycled while 40 percent ends up in landfills and 32 percent in ecosystems. One of the possible solutions to this is to incorporate recyclability into the design process itself, thus making the recovery and reuse more efficient. In the chemical sector, recycling strips down the material into original chemical building blocks to produce new products.
The principles of the circular economy provide a tangible outcome-driven approach to restoring balance in our environment. It can be applied in every conceivable industry of any size located anywhere in the world. The economic benefits flowing from it make it a compelling and sustainable solution to our environmental challenges. The goals we hope to achieve during the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will be far closer to our grasp if we can quickly scale up the global circular economy.
—The author, Alka Talwar, is Chief – CSR & Sustainability, at Tata Chemicals. The views expressed in the article are those of the author.
(Edited by: By Ajay Vaishnav)
First Published: IST