In the race to decarbonize, are we missing a bigger opportunity?

Hyekyung Clarisse Kim (Argonne National Laboratory, USA,; Seeram Ramakrishna (College of Design and Engineering, National University of Singapore,; Joshua Sperling (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, USA,
Published in Sustainability

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The race to decarbonize our energy systems is fueling government action for large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies and clean energy infrastructure [1].  While these actions are critical for meeting net-zero energy goals, they are outpacing our understanding of how to minimize their impacts on natural resources and ecological systems.  Solving our planetary crises will require a suite of solutions that couple cleantech with an understanding of their broader impacts and a fundamental shift toward green and inclusive economic prosperity.  With resource extraction and processing alone giving rise to 50% of GHG emissions and 90% of biodiversity loss with associated health impacts [2], it is critical to address not only direct carbon emissions but also the responsible use of resources in an ever-expanding global economy. Unless we replace the current extractive economy with a sustainable one, we will face lock-ins to pathways that exacerbate resource shortage, conflict, poverty, and human health and environmental consequences.

 A paradigm shift that makes circularity profitable, decreases demand, and creates local resilience holds the key [3]. In other words, the real prize is reduced resource intensity—defined as domestic resource consumption per gross domestic product (GDP) – coupled with an integrated approach that includes cleaner technologies, efficient consumption behaviors, and enabling policies for circularity [4]. This kind of systemic change can only happen with multiple actors shifting together, with governments acting as facilitators to overcome barriers, incentivize businesses, align consumer mindsets, and support locally led action.  If these pivots are accelerated now, we can seize early opportunities that lead to the economy of the future, which must be a sustainable and inclusive one.  Inaction will mean missing the grand opportunity to make the net-zero transition a truly just and resilient one, as well as the opportunity to develop innovations and early markets for a circular and resource efficient economy.  To help motivate this transition, we need to start talking not only about the environmental benefits but also the economic and social benefits of using, taking, and selling less.

Integrated benefits of a sustainable economy

 1. Drives innovation, new industries, and profitability

The transition from an extractive, linear economy to a sustainable, circular one can incentivize innovation in manufacturing and give rise to new industries estimated to represent a $4.5 trillion global growth opportunity by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum [5]. In the current model, companies increase profits by maximizing the number of things sold, and they are not connected with the waste they produce.  This model has led to unbridled resource extraction, emissions throughout the product lifecycles, and billions of tons of solid waste generated every year.  Companies can instead be incentivized to design with sustainability in mind – profiting from quality, longevity, upcycling, and services – and to operate within a producer responsibility framework that connects them with the waste they produce.  This not only significantly decreases pollution but can generate tremendous cost-savings for businesses – nearly $1 billion per year for just 11 companies analyzed in [6] – through highly effective material and logistical efficiencies. Every player has a role in this transition, with different countries able to benefit according to their own strengths. For example, through a recent partnership between PTT Global Chemical Public Company Limited and ALPLA to create world-class recycling infrastructure, the country of Thailand is now home to the largest integrated line of plastic recycling in Southeast Asia. The partnership is generating thousands of informal and formal job opportunities, strengthening the region’s circular economy, and supplying growing markets with high-quality material.

 2. Diverts waste from landfills and creates economic opportunities

The surge in solid waste in developing economies – particularly from plastics and other municipal waste – is straining the waste management systems of municipalities that often spend up to half their budgets on solid waste management [7].  A vast amount of this waste is openly dumped or burned without re-entering the economy or undergoing proper management, and most of this occurs in the poorest communities with vast implications for human health and equality. On our current trajectory, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, by when global waste is poised to grow 70% [8].  Circularity creates social and economic benefits by diverting this waste from landfills, generating energy, and creating new urban mining, recycling and upcycling industries [9]. 

 3. Supports resilient micro economies and employment for informal workers

Natural resources have always been closely linked with instability, conflicts, and security, but a sustainable economy can strengthen local supply chains and communities while reducing emissions.  For example, agricultural waste, which gives rise to emissions and drives down earnings for farmers, can be used to create micro-circular economies that empower communities and provide opportunities for informal workers.  By placing local collection and processing points that convert agricultural waste into biofuels, textiles, and high value add materials, this circularity can, in turn, create diverse economic opportunities for informal workers who make up an overwhelming 94% of the agricultural workforce [10].  Indeed, the integration of informal workers and waste pickers into a circular economy can alleviate poverty and exploitation – for example through cooperatives, training, and capacity building in ways that increase energy access, enable secure tenure, and improve nutrition and health [11-14].  According to the World Bank, properly supported and organized waste management creates employment and improves competitiveness of local communities, while decreasing municipal spending [15]. 

 4. Sustainable urbanization

Urbanization has a significant impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, rising resource demands, and human health effects. Yet rapid urbanization is occurring all around the world at unprecedented rates across Asia, Africa, and other emerging economies.  A hundred years ago, only 10% of the world’s population lived in metropolitan areas or cities. Today, that figure is about 60% and will reach 75% by 2050. In other words, the only way forward is sustainable urbanization which involves greener transportation and land use, circular cities concepts, higher green cover, sustainable buildings and infrastructure, renewable energy, industrial symbiosis, near shoring of resources and supplies, circular solid waste management, products and services designed for circularity, green digitalization, and ecological restoration.  Some examples include Singapore, coming in at 35 in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index of 2022, with a whole-of-nation commitment to implement sustainable solutions and to improve linkages with nature without lowering the standards of living. This is achieved not only through green commutes, buildings, and energy, but also through meticulous urban planning to lower emissions intensity, substantial investments in scaled-up green solutions, and an educated, green citizenry that consumes and wastes less [16]. Another example is the Circular Economy (CE) 100 Initiative which catalyzed several market-based solutions for integrated urban services and  designs to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials at their highest value, and regenerate nature. A key action arena for CE opportunities exists in cities of all sizes.

 5. Integrates Indigenous values and harnesses time-tested knowledge and practices

The success of sustainable development and climate and biodiversity goals depend largely on the leadership of indigenous peoples [17], for whom sustainability has been a way of life for millennia.  Indigenous peoples currently safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity [18] and “already have the knowledge and practices needed for the global community to implement and scale-up climate action,” according to the United Nations Development Programme [19].  Many time-tested practices already exist – from community-managed forests to traditional technologies for agriculture, aquaculture, and resource management.  The question is our willingness to learn from, distill, and scale up traditional knowledge and solutions for new age problems.  The World Health Organization’s recently launched Global Center for Traditional Medicine stands as a notable example in harnessing the power of traditional solutions in the field of health, and this model can be replicated in the search for sustainability solutions. With Indigenous peoples and communities acting as “the most effective groups in sustainable management” where their land rights are protected [20], recognition of Indigenous rights and integration of their worldviews is a crucial lever for climate action. By driving capital to local enterprises and learning from these under-represented voices, there will be new ways to shape low-carbon economies in a just, resilient, and holistic manner.

A global problem with local solutions

 The extractive economy on which our livelihoods are based is untenable because it comes at the expense of ecological devastation and the marginalization and extinction of living beings.  On the other hand, a sustainable economy relies on community-led action and benefits nature, while creating new markets, revenue streams, and cost-savings for companies and municipalities.  It reduces the emissions and land-energy-water stress from unabated resource extraction and the lifecycle of products from processing all the way to disposal. Most importantly, by shifting the emphasis from self-interest to interdependence, it evokes our sense of community and sharing and makes global prosperity possible.  The questions posed here on pathways for achieving circular, resource efficient and just transitions to greener economies hold potential to open up sustainable strategies for the well-being of people, nature, and communities… everywhere.


 [1] According to the 2022 Synthesis Report on NDCs, 84% of the Parties referred to renewable energy generation and 91% to energy efficiency technologies as mitigation options.  By contrast, only 25% of Parties made reference to promoting a circular economy.

 [2] International Resource Panel, Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want (2020), accessed online at:

 [3] Pew Foundation, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Solution (2020), accessed online at:

 [4] United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Productions, accessed online at:

 [5] Frans van Houten and Naoko Ishii, “It’s time for the circular economy to go global – and you can help,” World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (Jan. 24, 2019), accessed online at:

[6] Wellers, D. and Koch, C., “Circular Economy: The Path to Sustainable Profitability.” SAP Insights, accessed online at:

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 [9] Raconteur, “Packaging of a trillion-dollar circular economy,” accessed online at:, reports that $11.4B every year wasted from post-consumer packaging in the US.

 [10] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Tacking Vulnerability in the Informal Economy – Most Workers in the World Still Go without Social Protection,” accessed online at:

 [11] Rajesh Buch, et al., “From waste pickers to producers: an inclusive circular economy solution through development of cooperatives in waste management,” The Circular Economy Challenge: Towards a Sustainable Development, (Aug. 10, 2021).

 [12] Morais, J., et al. “Global review of human waste-picking and its contribution to poverty alleviation and a circular economy,” Environmental Research Letters 17 063002 (2022). DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/ac6b49

 [13] Gutberlet, J., Carenzo, S. “Waste pickers at the heart of the circular economy: A perspective of inclusive recycling from the global south,” Worldwide Waste Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies vol. 3, issue 1 (2020). DOI: 10.5334/wwwj.50

 [14] Barford, A., Ahmad, S.R. “A Call for a Socially Restorative Circular Economy: Waste Pickers in the Recycled Plastics Supply Chain”. Circ. Econ. Sust. 1, 761–782 (2021).

 [15] World Bank Group. “What a Waste: an Updated Look into the Future of Solid Waste Management,” (2018), accessed online at:

 [16] Zero Waste Nation, accessed online at:; Singapore Green Plan, accessed online at

 [17] Alana Craigen, “For a truly circular economy, we need to listen to indigenous voices,” United Nations Development Programme Blog (Nov. 2021), accessed online at:

 [18] Recio, E., Hestad, D., “Still only one earth: Lessons from 50 years of UN sustainable development policy,” IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin Policy brief 36 (April 2022), accessed online at:; United Nations Climate Change News, “Values of Indigenous peoples can be a key component of climate resilience,” (Sept. 2019), accessed online at:

 [19] United Nations Climate Change News, “How indigenous peoples enrich climate action” (Aug. 2022), accessed online at:

 [20] Asyl Undeland, “Indigenous Land Rights a Critical Pillar of Climate Action,” World Bank Blogs (Nov. 2021), accessed online at:

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