The annual World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF) brings together policymakers, business leaders and experts from around the world to discuss and present circular economy solutions. This year, the WCEF 2021 is hosted online from Canada on September 13-15, 2021 and focuses on the system-level changes required for the transition to a circular economy. On this occasion, the International Resource Panel (IRP) Co-Chairs, Izabella Teixeira and Janez Potočnik were invited to present IRP's findings on the circular economy and their implications for sustainable development.

On September 13, Co-Chair Izabella Teixeira spoke at the first Game Changer Session on the topic of "Expanding the Circle: Collaborative Leadership to Drive Bold Action" and discussed with leaders including Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Minister of Environment, the Republic of Rwanda, Leslie Johnston, CEO at Laudes Foundation, and Nicolas Galarza, Vice Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Columbia, among others.

On September 14, Co-Chair Janez Potočnik delivered a keynote speech at the First High-Level Meeting of the Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency (GACERE) on the occasion of the WCEF 2021. He provided high-level remarks about circular economy and resource efficiency and the link to solutions for climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, and the potential role of GACERE in related multilateral processes. Co-Chair's speech was followed by high-level discussions between Mr. Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, European Union, Ms. Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UNEP, Mr. Jocelyn Blériot, Executive Lead Institutions, Governments & Cities, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Ministers from a number of countries. 

Co-Chair Janez Potočnik's speech as delivered at the First High-Level Meeting of the GACERE

Dear friends … It is a pleasure to be with you today for the first high-level meeting of the Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency. This is a truly important initiative, and I hope I can contribute to its success.

Before I speak about GACERE and its future roles, let me briefly introduce the International Resource Panel, short IRP. I’ll say more about our work later. I Co-Chair the IRP with Izabella Teixeira. Hosted by UNEP since 2007, we are a panel of up to 40 scientists from all over the world, brought together to consolidate knowledge and produce new insights on the management of natural resources, its impacts, and solutions. IRP is guided by a Steering Committee of around 35 country government representatives and the European Commission.

It is really exciting to see the establishment of GACERE. It is a great initiative, filling the gap for an alliance of governments at the global level, advocating for a just transition to a circular economy. It is also a very timely initiative. Not only because our window to take action is closing, but also because we can capitalize on the high level of political attention for sustainable solutions ahead of COP26 in Glasgow and CBD COP15 in Kunming – and also beyond.

GACERE aims to have impact with decision-makers in multilateral fora. Through the actors you’re bringing together, and the combination of approaches you plan to take - like disseminating knowledge, mapping successes, barriers, and research needs, and especially through facilitating conversations on global governance of natural resources - you will raise profile of circular economy and resource efficiency solutions. I’m sure this will draw attention by UNEA, UN General Assembly, High-Level Political Forum. And rightly so, it is high time for that.

We know that our unsustainable natural resource use patterns, and the economic systems which drive them, are at the root of the triple planetary crisis – climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. This is where IRP material can really support the knowledge products you are developing in GACERE. We can provide underpinning evidence. It is great to see that IRP data already features prominently in your working paper and concept note. We know from IRP’s work that extraction and processing of natural resources drives 50% of global climate change. This is mainly via the production of fossil fuel products, biomass, steel, and cement. Natural resource use causes 90% of global land-related biodiversity loss, mainly due to agriculture, timber production or ocean resource use. Natural resource industries (such as steel or coal) are also behind one third of global air pollution, as well as water and land pollution.

We also know that the trends are alarming: material use, which comprises everything extracted from earth, has tripled since 1970, and IRP data tells us that – without transformative measures – it will double again by 2060. The consequences for the triple crisis will be severe. Therefore, we know it is absolutely necessary to decouple growth in well-being and prosperity from natural resource use and its impacts. And we need to do this urgently – the window of opportunity is closing fast.

It is important to keep in mind that circular economy is not the aim in itselfit is an instrument through which we deliver decoupling of well-being from resource use and all its environmental impacts. It captures incentivising repair, reuse, recovery, and of course, recycling, as well as optimised product utilisation, and experimentation with new business models – and new ways of creating value. For example – creating value through services rather than products. Diverse sectors are already benefitting from product-as-service models: companies are offering subscriptions or ‘pay-per-use’ for farm machinery, which is resource intensive to produce, and expensive to purchase outright. Circular economy strategies can make a massive contribution to achieving climate and biodiversity targets, and I’ll say more about this later. It is ultimately about absolute resource use reduction. Important for all, but urgent for high-income countries with consumption footprints leading to already transgressing planetary boundaries.

Therefore, we have to focus on the need to de-materialize the systems we depend on – I’m talking about mobility, housing, and some consumer goods – by looking far beyond reuse and recycling. We need to reject the assumption that these systems need to be resource intensive. Think of it this way – we do not need chairs; we need to sit down. We do not need cars; we need to get from A to B. We do not need light bulbs, we need light. And there are so many more examples. We need to think of the whole system when designing these solutions: only by doing this can we avoid trade-offs and maximize co-benefits. For example: construction with high-quality green materials will not lead to truly green cities if urban sprawl development continues, if cities are not built and reorganised with sustainable space functioning logic in mind. And we can reduce emissions through electrifying mobility, but if individual vehicle ownership does not change then resource use impacts will continue to increase.

GACERE has huge potential to make a real difference here by advocating for these systemic circular and resource efficiency solutions. In all your activities I would encourage GACERE to remember that to deeply change resource use, we need to fundamentally change our economic systems. Often, it is economic incentives which drive our production and consumption patterns. Currently, our economic systems see humanity as being external to nature – and incentivize its destruction. The Dasgupta Review, published earlier this year, highlights this failure of contemporary economics to acknowledge that we are embedded in, and not external to nature, and encourages us to act accordingly. It makes the case for basing economic decisions on an inclusive measure of wealth, based on human, produced, and natural capital. Policymakers need to find ways of integrating nature and natural resource use into government decisions; and this means looking beyond our existing measures of economic success. GACERE could make a real difference to this important agenda by advocating for economic system change in multilateral fora. Economic institutions need to be part of the audience you’re planning to reach.

It is my hope that you will continue to draw on IRP’s work. Let me thus highlight some of our recent pieces which provide ready-to-use resource management solutions for the climate and biodiversity crises.

Last December, we published our report Resource Efficiency for Climate Change – a topic very much in line with you recent Working Paper. We focussed on housing and mobility – two systems where changing patterns of utilization, as well as making the material use embedded in their production circular, could make a considerable contribution to reducing emissions.

In housing, building residential space to be used more intensively could have a huge impact. In the world’s richest countries, material efficiency strategies like reduced floor space and use of recycled building materials could reduce building lifecycle emissions by over a third in the next decades.

And in mobility, the way we utilize vehicles could also make a big difference: ridesharing and car-sharing reduce the number of vehicles needed to meet travel demand. Fewer vehicles: less environmentally damaging impact from resource use embedded in production.

This is the kind of evidence which points to the need to change our socially embedded expectations about use of resources and space. Policies incentivizing increased building use intensity (such as relaxing single-family zoning), encouraging public transport and ride sharing (for example, by reserving part of the road for shared rides), can enable the transition we need. Such solutions also bring co-benefits: if you build an efficient, shared, and circular transport system you will not only reduce transport emissions and improve public health, but save tons of steel for private cars, require fewer batteries and critical raw materials, less energy, and even free the land. GACERE can advocate for these solutions, and this kind of system thinking.

In the context of systems thinking – let me point you towards a recent piece of work from SYSTEMIQ and the Club of Rome: The Systems Change Compass. This outlines principles for achieving system change in diverse economic ecosystems, including housing and mobility, but also food and consumer goods, based on natural resource management logic.

I mentioned earlier that our IRP related work provided biodiversity solutions, as well as solutions for climate and pollution – and I’d like to highlight a recent piece from myself and my IRP Co-Chair Izabella Teixeira. I know the relationship between biodiversity and circular economy is a priority for GACERE’s future work, so I’m sure you will find this useful. Izabella and I were actively involved in negotiating the Aichi targets In Nagoya in 2010 - 20 biodiversity goals we committed to as a global community. The sad fact is that after more than a decade, none of them have been in reality met. This is also one of the reasons why we contributed our piece: Building Biodiversity – the Natural Resource Management Approach.

With COP15 in Kunming setting new global biodiversity targets, we have a huge opportunity to deliver real change for nature. To be truly effective, future actions need to be focused on the root causes of biodiversity loss, in addition to conservation. The drivers for biodiversity loss are the demand for food, timber, and other natural resource materials, as well as the pollution caused by their extraction and use. Of course, we all need food and wood; but that is not really the problem. The problem is that this demand is currently provided by incredibly inefficient and linear systems. Most biodiversity discussions still mainly discuss how to marginally increase conservation areas, instead of how to change the underlying causes of linear and inefficient food and land management.

It looks at biodiversity governance through a natural resource use lens, and highlights principles which policymakers can put into practice for effective implementation of the next set of targets.

These principles are: knowing your impact, planning together, growing with nature, and valuing nature. All solutions which GACERE can highlight through its advocacy activities and convening power.

Knowing your impact is essentially the principle of value chain transparency. Every sector, and every consumer must understand why and how they have an impact on nature. This transparency would enable decision-makers to identify key points of intervention, where environmental impacts along the value chain caused by production and consumption can be reduced.

Planning Together – integrated landscape planning – is essential to gain the necessary full picture of competing spatial needs. Often, decision makers are operating with incomplete knowledge of how resources are used – which drives their overexploitation. It should be mandatory for integrated land use maps to be part of countries’ national climate and biodiversity plans.

Growing with nature – scaling nature-based and circular solutions – offers huge economic and environmental opportunities, including restoring degraded landscapes, and job creation.

The final principle, valuing nature, is deeply needed because the intrinsic value of natural assets and the services they provide is not recognized by economic systems. This contributes to the mismanagement of natural resources. We must incentivize long-term investment in nature, by accounting for the role it plays in how we produce and consume. This is a huge part of the overarching economic system change I mentioned earlier.

Dear friends, to conclude.

It all starts with understanding that for the first time in human history, we face the emergence of a single, tightly coupled human social-ecological system of planetary scope. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever, and our individual and collective responsibility has thus enormously increased. Sharing sovereignty, which means cooperating more, joining our forces, is the best and only way to manage our collective future. 

You might have heard me in the past vocally advocating for better cooperation on a global level when it comes to natural resource management, even mentioning that there might be a need for potential new convention dealing with natural resource management, creating a necessary commitment and level playing field, conditions for a transition leading to sustainable society and economy consistent with SDGs we have all committed to. I do see an important role GACERE could play in this respect. By raising importance of natural resource management, importance of circular economy approach, and collaboration on a global level, you could importantly contribute to the needed developments for the future we want. 

I hope to remain closely involved with your work in the future and look forward to a two-way exchange of ideas. IRP can provide world-class scientific evidence and systemic solutions, but we will also benefit from knowledge generated by GACERE’s policy mapping and identification of research needs and barriers.

There will be upcoming opportunities to engage on IRP’s developing work: we will be looking to engage in dialogues on a new climate opinion piece, and our next Global Resources Outlook. We very much hope GACERE will be part of these conversations.

I wish you every success in this hugely important endeavour and look forward to a close collaboration in the future. I wish you a productive first high-level meeting! Thank you for your attention and good luck.

Video recording of Izabella Teixeira at the WCEF 2021


Video recording of Janez Potočnik at the First High-Level Meeting of the GACERE