The recovery package being considered by the Scottish Government offers an opportunity to set our economy on a different trajectory – one that allows us to live well within Earth’s limits.
Prior to the recent abrupt downturn in economic activity, our economy was eating its way through the world’s natural resources at a rate that was both unsustainable from an environmental point of view and undesirable from an economic resilience point of view. The world’s consumption of materials has hit a record of 100 billion tonnes a year, and the proportion being recycled is falling – was the sobering headline from January’s Circularity Gap report.
What’s more, the quantity of raw materials consumed is a key driver of our climate and nature emergencies, according to the 2019 Global Resource Outlook.
Unsurprisingly, Western societies are the main culprits. We are consuming far more than our fair share and if everyone lived like UK citizens, we would need about three Earths to sustain ourselves, according to ecological footprint data. We need to move to one planet, to re-programme our economy from one that ‘takes, makes, uses and discards’ to one that ‘takes less, makes to last, uses repeatedly, and recycles what’s left’. This is called a circular economy. Also essential to a circular economy is that it is restorative, regenerating the natural systems on which we all rely.
The economic fall-out from Covid is going to be huge and governments around the world are thinking about and announcing recovery packages. The Scottish Government has committed to a green recovery. Now is the time for a purposeful redirection to a less wasteful, and more circular economy. In order for this to happen, we need to invest in enterprises which contribute to a circular economy and create the markets for them to thrive. We need products that are designed to last a long time and producers to be responsible for the whole life cycle of their products; we need a co-ordinated approach not only to recycling, but also to repair, re-use and sharing; and we need to incentivise the use of used and recycled materials so that they loop back into the system. We need investment in infrastructure that enables a less polluting and wasteful economy and we need joined up policies, so that circularity is embedded across all facets of the economy.
The current crisis has exposed the vulnerability of our international and just-in-time supply chains. The time is both critical and opportune – many businesses have been disrupted due to the lockdown and are being forced to rethink business models, and the adaptive nature and ingenuity of some enterprises has been inspiring. There are examples in the food sector of increased demand for locally produced and sustainable food. Let’s build on these initiatives and reappraise our food and farming system so that more of the food produced in Scotland is consumed in Scotland, there is less waste, both by households but also further up the supply chain, and the footprint of Scottish farming is reduced. We need to think about sources of protein, following examples in other countries, to help steer us away from imported soya towards innovative use of by-products for animal and fish food and more home-grown protein. There are already innovative examples such as using insects to turn food waste into fish food and fertiliser, and the potential is huge.
It is time to be bold and decisive – governments need to invest in the infrastructure and enterprises that will contribute to the type of economy we aspire to and to not support practices that lock us into a linear, polluting and wasteful economy.
Let’s hope that a more circular economy is one of the positive outcomes of this difficult time.
Dr Phoebe Cochrane is the sustainable economics officer at Scottish Environment LINK and leads on the project: A Circular Economy for a Fairer Footprint