How the circular economy is changing the world in the era of the climate crisis

Emma Yule and Brenda Mwale, young eco-leaders and climate experts, talk about the transition to a sustainable economy, reuse, rental of things, and their optimism on climate change

About the experts:

  • Emma Yule (Scotland) is an environmental consultant and PhD candidate in environmental and atmospheric sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Tutor in the Master’s Program in Carbon Management, Co-Chair of the Leadership Network at the 2050 Climate Group. She worked for an environmental NGO that helps companies reduce emissions.
  • Brenda Mwale (Malawi) is a youth climate change leader within the Scotland-Malawi partnership, an active member of the Global Coordination Team, a program manager for the Green Girls Platform and Malawi National Youth Network on Climate Change, a food technologist. Manages the Glow Foods agricultural project, which specializes in crop production.
  • Emma and Brenda participated in COP26 panel discussions in Glasgow and the Global Impact Conference (GIC). GIC is an international online conference on climate change for NGOs, government institutions, environmental experts, was held with the support of Rosatom on December 1, 2021. The conference resulted in the creation of the International Youth Advisory Board Impact Team 2050.

Cooperation and circular economy

— The theme of the GIC is bridging the gaps. How is global cooperation evolving during the pandemic?

Emma:

The pandemic has made it difficult to meet and discuss issues with representatives of groups from different fields. For example, many could not get to a conference in Glasgow due to COVID-19. At the same time, it is clear that there is no need for international travel to the extent that it used to be. It wasn’t as easy to make connections during the GIC as it used to be, but we are certainly making progress.

The conferences give us a roadmap for countries to cooperate, but the key work is done in cities, towns, communities and organizations. We need this approach from the general to the specific – from the specific to the general and working together. After all, there are examples of strategies that look great from the point of view of the climate, but when they reach the population, they give a completely opposite effect. That is why cooperation is so important, which should be strengthened between different groups, the general discussion of representatives of companies, citizens and authorities.

Green economy

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— How is business adapting to climate policy? What steps are being taken and should be taken in the future?

Emma:

The transition from a linear economy to a cyclic one is becoming paramount. If we buy a product and throw it away after a while, this is the most striking manifestation of the linear type. But the circular economy assumes that instead of getting rid of things or products, we return them to the manufacturer. Either so that we can use them after the repair, or so he can recycle the materials for another product. Some top companies use this approach to encourage their customers to return products. This reduces both emissions and waste.

A number of transport companies that have traditionally sold cars and the idea of ​​owning a car are now selling the idea of ​​mobility. They shifted the focus from product to service. This means that their customers can get around and travel using a car, but without owning one. In this way, they show what a world might look like where people have the opportunity to access resources, but not to possess them during their life cycle. These changes cannot happen overnight, but work is under way.

The sharing economy
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– As for agriculture, can it work without harm to the environment?

Brand:

It depends on where you live, on access to resources. For example, in Malawi, 90% of the population depends on agriculture. This applies to both personal subsidiary plots and commercial farms. But access to technology, knowledge and resources is limited. However, I believe that sustainable agriculture is real: the world is developing, there are innovations that support this direction. For example, hydroponics is not the easiest method, but it has proven effective: there is no need for large plots of land to get a high yield. Another example is the harvesting of rainwater for irrigation. Or a mixed type of farming, which can also reduce the negative impact on the environment. The main aspects here are healthy nutrition for animals, the use of waste as natural fertilizer, which is safer than industrial,

Hydroponics: A method of growing plants in artificial media without soil thanks to a nutrient solution that surrounds the roots (Photo: Unsplash)

Green economy
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— What are the main difficulties in the sustainable development of agriculture that you could single out?

Brand:

Of course, here we are talking about the proper amount of investment in equipment, education and support for young professionals, because work in the field of agriculture is a real prospect. Plus, it’s interesting. Although there is a stereotype that this is not the most successful career story, supposedly people with no knowledge or only representatives of the older generation work in agriculture. Here I can argue. It is important that the knowledge we acquire in colleges and universities is practically applicable. After graduation, I did not expect that someone would hire me, I needed to transfer knowledge to those who did not have the opportunity to receive it. That is why I work with local farmers.

Investments are needed at the local, national and international levels. And it is also worth mentioning teamwork and partnership. Malawi prefers to work alone. But I realized that if we want to act, we need cooperation, we cannot perceive each other as rivals. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a developing country or a developed country, we’ve all been affected by climate change. We must be open to sharing information and practices. We all live with population growth and demand for food, but every year we face the problem of food loss and food waste. Only joint efforts can help to cope with this.

— What positive changes do you see in the agricultural sector?

Brand:

Young people are entering this area. They have different experience: someone is an IT specialist, someone works in marketing, etc. They make a great contribution to the sustainable development of agriculture in times of climate change. Innovation is very valuable. For example, an application for irrigation: there is no need for you to be present on the farm at the time of watering the crops. Drones have been developed that control the farm and fix any changes, this prevents losses. Or a marketplace app: I don’t have to meet with this or that representative, I can just deliver the products and get the proceeds that will allow me to continue working.

We need projects not for obtaining scientific degrees, but for the result and benefit. One of my researches was about avocado jam. As you know, the plant bears fruit seasonally, so the excess is wasted. People liked the taste and consistency of the jam, moreover, the shelf life is quite long. I want to monetize this product, reduce food waste.

— Can the reduction of harmful emissions and eco-production lead to an even greater rise in prices for products and services? How to protect low-income people in such a case?

Emma:

It should be noted here that vulnerable groups also suffer from extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and fires, which are a consequence of climate change. Research shows that if stakeholders invest in a sustainable transition to a circular economy, it can save money in the long run. As we know, extreme weather can drive up food prices, and this cost perspective is much higher than the investments that could be made now.

Another example is the rise in fuel prices. On the one hand, this seems like a good idea in terms of reducing carbon emissions. But in reality, it hit people, especially those who have no other way to get to work except by car. Therefore, in a circular economy, the creation of cheaper and more efficient alternatives becomes a priority. It is necessary to create infrastructure: safe bike lanes, taxis, carsharing and public transport. Such initiatives attract people, many have started a business in this direction.

social economy

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Brand:

As for the agricultural sector, I would say that everything again depends on the region. If you live in a developed country, you have access to resources and technology, this should not create additional problems with pricing. But in my case, if I need agricultural machinery, I have to order it from China. I buy equipment at a reasonable price, but transportation and other costs make it ten times more expensive, which affects the final price of the product.

Imports also cause frustration among local farmers: they do not see the point of their work. Therefore, the policy pursued should support its producers. This will transform food systems in the current environment and reduce labor intensity. Climate-friendly farming methods will then be more accessible and efficient, and the issue of food prices will become less acute.

I can share Glow Foods experience in supporting vulnerable populations. We involve youth and women, providing them with jobs, access to education. They can start their own business with the skills and knowledge we provide and then create jobs in their communities. We work for gender equality, zero hunger and access to property. Together we strengthen the brand and develop deliveries. I had a sweet potato contract and realized that I couldn’t keep up with the demand. Then I turned to farmers and representatives of local communities. We provided them with land and management, trained them in skills and knowledge to guarantee the quality of the product. We closed the contract and gave people the opportunity to earn money, support their farms, and continue their education.

Climate as a way of life
– Obviously, rational consumption has not left room for total consumerism. Is it possible to call the system of rational consumption a system of restrictions?

Emma:

In a sense, yes. The basic principle of the circular economy lies precisely in free access to resources, but without owning them. Therefore, organizations offer a wide range of services, starting with the rental of dresses.

There is a system called the “doughnut economy”, which moves away from the notion of economic growth and proposes instead to turn to the goals of the nation or the world community. The main idea of ​​living in this donut is social, which means that people have equal access to energy, a roof over their heads, education and food. But we must keep in mind that the overall environmental ceiling cannot be exceeded, whether it be harmful emissions or ocean acidification. Such economic models are interesting and deserve attention.

In small communities, in cities, we can see that it works. I hope that this model will be able to scale. In any case, we have a lot to learn in this direction.

Illustration from the book How to Save the Planet. The Donut Economy: A visual diagram of sustainable development, shaped like a donut or lifeline, designed by economist Keith Rayworth. Combines the concept of planetary boundaries with the concept of social boundaries   (Photo: deti.mann-ivanov-ferber.ru)
What eco – habits can help us cope with the climate crisis?

Brand:

Recycling and reuse are key when we talk about preventing food loss, and it doesn’t just happen on farms, it happens to consumers as well. We need to reuse materials, to abandon thin plastic. Another key thing is awareness, awareness. We need to talk more about waste reduction and proper disposal.

Emma:

There are many options: drive less if possible, reduce waste, recycle. But the most important thing is to learn more about climate change, participate in discussions and share ideas. We all have hobbies, jobs we love: why not think about how climate change will affect them or how they affect the environment.

I know people who have started a sustainable business focused on green products, written a school course for children, or completely reshaped the supply chain in their office. Everyone can contribute, it’s true. As the “architect” of the Paris climate agreement, Cristina Figueres, says: “We have no choice, only “stubborn optimism”.

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