Blog post by Dr Clarissa Rios Rojas

Exploring Policies for a Transition Towards a Circular Economy


3 September 2020, by Dr Clarissa Rios Rojas

One of the engagement groups which supports the G20 summit is the S20 - a team which works with national science academies around the world to foster official dialogue with the scientific community and to present policymakers with consensus-based recommendations that are relevant to scientists, policymakers, and society. This year, as part of my work at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, I have had the honour of joining this global effort in an advisory capacity focused on foresight policy recommendations. The Circular Economy is one of the main topics at the Science 20 engagement group (S20) this year, and part of my contribution to the S20 has involved exploring various national and international efforts to improve resource utilization and waste reduction. So, what steps are being taken to develop policies which support a transition towards circularity?

The circular economy at the United Nations

Many UN offices now incorporate the circular economy as part of their agendas. However, there are main three bodies conducting work in this area which are particularly relevant for those working in the scientific community:

  1. The UN Industrial Development Organization helps to build circular economy business models by providing technical and policy support. In addition, they have also supported the creation of the Global Network for Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production, which works with partners from all over the world and is used as a knowledge transfer network.
  2. The UN Conference on Trade and Development is a body dealing with trade, investment, and development issues. Its work-related to the circular economy is focused on encouraging discussions and activities seeking to bring value out of waste flows (from production to collection and recycling) and its efforts to encourage consumer awareness and behavioural shifts.
  3. UN Climate Change Learning Partnership supports knowledge sharing and is constantly producing courses on a diverse range of topics such as the one on Circular Economy and the 2030 Agenda.

The circular economy at the European Union

The new EU circular economy plan was also launched this year, and it is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal, which is Europe’s new agenda for sustainable growth. This big effort shows that when there is political will from all member states, legislation and changes can happen within a few months for the entire life cycle of products. Other initiatives surrounding this action plan include the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, which provides access to knowledge, dialogue, policies, and best practices. The EU has also hosted open consultations about their action plan as recently as January 2020. Moreover, the EU has pushed their efforts to advance the circular economy even outside its borders, as illustrated by the recent agreement of cooperation signed with China on water and circular economy.

The circular economy around the globe

Policies promoting circularity are expanding globally, and one region where they are becoming more prevalent is Latin America. Recent examples include efforts by the governments of Chile and Peru, each of whom have set up strategic economic roadmaps for promoting the circular economy in their countries. In May, Chile also initiated a strategic committee for the circular economy as part of their economic recovery plan following the covid-19 crisis.

The challenges involved in developing circular economies transcend national boundaries, and around the world a number of collaborative circular economy initiatives have also sprung up which involve a range of stakeholders from academia, industry and civil society. This includes the formation of networks of scientists as researchers working on circularity through the Circular Economy Coalition for Europe, and recent Chatham House efforts to report on stakeholders working to foster circular economies in developing contexts. Meanwhile, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has developed a digital measuring tool, Circulytics, to give companies a comprehensive picture of their circularity across all operations, and has collaborated with the World Economic Forum and Mckinsey and Company to produce a report on circular economies which emphasies cross-border, cross-industry and cross-sector collaborations.

The role of academia in the transition to a circular economy

Scientific research is a vital component of efforts to promote the efficient implementation of a circular economy system. Researchers can provide vital evidence that can aid policymakers in taking science-informed approaches to analysing the impact of circular economy policies. For this to succeed, we need to re-think the science-policy interface, and transition from the old model where scientists produce research that policymakers can use to an updated approach where co-design, co-production, co-delivery of knowledge is part of our research process. This new approach will also help us to build a stronger link between science and policy.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and the future of circular economy research

At the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, we have adapted and implemented foresight methods to understand and develop ways of addressing global risks. Methods including horizon scanning, systems mapping, role-playing and forecasting have allowed us to explore possible future scenarios in fields such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering, while supporting the co-creation of policy recommendations. As we work to build stronger links between science and policy, our centre has also been teaching civil servants and academics how foresight tools can be used to think about environmental breakdown and our planet's future. As we explore the future of the circular economy, foresight is one of the many tools we have at our disposal. Our centre is eager to collaborate and co-create with those working on the challenges of transitioning to a circular economy, and we are open to hearing from those interested in possible new collaborations in this area.

Dr Clarissa Rios Rojas is a Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk where she works at the interface of science and policymaking on A Science of Global Risk. She is Peruvian scientist whose work has included research on molecular biology, neurosciences, biomedicine, and developmental biology. Her present work focuses on the risks of emerging technologies, science policy, science diplomacy, and the management of global risks. Dr Rios Rojas has previously served as a UN Women Champion for Women's Economic Empowerment, a UNESCO delegate, an advisor at the Women Economic Forum, an Eisenhower Fellow, a World Economic Forum Fellow, and as Emerging Leader at the Atlantic Dialogues.