United Nations Environment Programme
14 Sep 2021 Speech Nature Action

A circular transition to tackle the triple planetary crisis

Unsplash / 14 Sep 2021
Speech delivered by: Inger Andersen

Please allow me to begin by thanking Canada for its global leadership on the circular economy agenda, and The Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, for its constant efforts to move the agenda forward. Your work matters, because our planet needs circularity more than it ever has before.

This year brought an intensification of the climate crisis. Wildfires consuming entire forests and communities. Floods sweeping away villages and turning cities into lakes. Droughts hitting multiple locations, including North America – in July, the Palmer Drought Index said 37 per cent of the contiguous United States was affected by severe to extreme drought.

More intense droughts, floods and storms. Exactly what climate scientists have warned us about. And exactly what the same climate scientists in August told us we can expect a lot more of, and soon, if we don’t rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But climate change is not our only concern. Humanity is expanding into wild spaces to feed, house and clothe itself – chipping away at the foundations of what makes well-being possible and causing the nature and biodiversity crisis. Humanity is poisoning the air, land and water with toxic gases, plastics, pesticides and waste of all kinds, causing the pollution and waste crisis.

It would be a mistake to consider these crises as separate. They are, essentially, one and the same. They affect each other and are made worse by many of the same drivers. And the core driver of this triple planetary crisis is unsustainable consumption and production.

For far too long, we assumed that the planet could keep on giving. That it could absorb whatever punishment we threw at it. We were wrong. We know we were wrong. And yet here we are, making the same mistakes. It is far beyond time to move to circular economic models.

Friends, the science has been telling us this for years, with new research coming out all the time to drive the point home.

Particularly relevant, given the IPCC’s warning is the 2021 Circularity Gap Report. We know that making our economies circular could unlock USD 4.5 trillion of economic growth and create millions of new jobs. Yet the world is actually less circular now than it was a few years ago.

Circularity matters. Is good for the planet. For our economy. For nature. For climate. And for a cleaner less polluted world. I am sure many people at this event could list dozens of examples of the positive benefits of circularity. But reminding each other of things we already know isn’t going to get the job done. We need to take the message out and start advocating the changes we need.

I am sure many people at this event could list dozens of more examples off the tops of their heads. But reminding each other of things we already know isn’t going to get the job done. We need to take the message out and start advocating the changes we need.

The way we at UNEP see it, there are four game changers that can accelerate the circularity transition right now.

The first is to make sustainable consumption and production and circularity more central to the critical multilateral negotiations taking place in the coming months. The next climate COP. The biodiversity COP will agree on the next global deal to protect biodiversity. The next United Nations Environment Assembly. The next meeting on a global framework for sound chemicals management. Circularity will greatly increase the chances of success in all these crucial processes. The second is to promote shifts in policies, governance, regulation, infrastructure, investment, and business models towards a just and informed transition to circularity. For example, use pandemic recovery spending to shift gears on circularity, because at the moment only 21 per cent of the USD 3.38 trillion in announced ‘recovery’ spending is green.

Or incorporate circularity in government procurement decisions, which represent an average of 12 per cent of GDP in OECD countries and up to 30 per cent in many developing countries.

The third is to transform economic and financial systems to power the shift to circularity. Put a price on carbon. Redirect harmful subsidies and taxation resource use and waste. Scale-up circular economy financial products and services, building on existing proofs-of-concept.

The fourth is to invest in knowledge, skills and training to ensure workers have access to decent, safe and attractive job opportunities in a circular economy. We have to consider that opportunities are likely to concentrate on recycling and offering maintenance services, and find ways to support the shift in countries and industries that currently rely heavily on linear models.

This, dear friends, is what we have to do. Because linear economies that take, make and waste are slowly killing our planet. They are slowly killing us. Circular models, on the other hand, can put humanity back into harmony with nature – because nature itself is circular. They can allow opportunities and a better life for everyone. They can slow and reverse the triple planetary crisis. They are, fundamentally, the only way that humanity can thrive and prosper on this planet for centuries to come.

Thank you.

Inger Andersen

Executive Director