The Circular Economy in China: achievements, challenges and potential implications for decarbonisation

Much has been said about a circular economy in China - yet, a paper on underlying drivers and limitations has been missing and addressing net zero carbon too. It is also timely witnessing geopolitical tensions over supply chain security and interest in China's internal structures.
Published in Sustainability

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Much has been said about a circular economy in China - yet we thought a paper on underlying drivers and limitations is missing, especially given the need to address net zero carbon too. Our paper aims to fill this gap. As you all can imagine, this is easier said than done. Doing interviews is difficult, and robust governance indicators are lacking. Thus it’s been a quite a journey on such difficult topic. The four reviews have been demanding, pushing our draft in different directions. We did a thorough revision and came up with a seven pages response. The second round of reviews was supportive. After all, we are grateful for this challenging review process. I believe the result is a useful contribution on an important topic and should inspire further research. Thanks to fab co-authors Miying Yang, Jie Zhou, Philip Andrews-Speed, Will McDowall, Zhe Liu, beijia huang, Xiaozhen XU, Geng Yong and support from UKRI Circular Economy Hub (CE-HUB), UCL, as well as Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) GmbH.

Abstract: China’s wide-ranging circular economy (CE) efforts have been studied multiple times from a range of perspectives. Synthesizing the relevant literature, this paper provides a critical reflection on the transition to a CE in China. Key factors for China’s success in shifting towards a CE are seen in multi-level indicators and upscaling niches. This paper makes a novel contribution on limitations to progress, based on emerging evidence on CE projects that fail to sustain. Enriched by experts feedback, this paper critically addresses future challenges to a deep transition resulting from implementation gaps between early majorities and mass markets and coordination challenges arising through regional and sectoral differences. In light of China’s commitments to climate neutrality by 2060, such challenges are considered serious. Based on feasible policy learning, the paper however proposes synergies between the CE and decarbonisation driven by efficiency improvements, comprehensive core indicators, upscaling and urban policies as trigger for deeper transformations. Finally the paper undertakes broader reflections and an outlook on evidence-orientated policy learning for a CE and decarbonisation in China.

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