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The Circular Economy: Redesigning our Planet’s Future

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Think about the last item you threw away. Did you consider where that product ended up, once you threw it away?

The Earth’s growing waste problem can be traced back to a culture that treats virtually every item we buy and own as disposable. Rapid urbanisation, population growth, and industrialisation are key contributors to the burgeoning volumes of waste that humans are producing each year.

But what if there was away to get around that?

Introducing the Circular Economy

Today’s post from BlackRock highlights the key benefits of adopting a circular economy, and examines the factors that will make the biggest impact in the years to come.

Circular Economy

A Culture of Consumption

Mass production is making products cheaper, more readily available, and more readily disposable, bringing levels of material comfort unimaginable to previous generations.

Companies are making new products at a frenetic pace to keep up with global demand─consuming finite resources as if the Earth had an infinite supply.

The intense effects of this mass consumption are visible across multiple industries:

  • Construction: Construction waste alone is expected to reach 2.2 billion tonnes annually by 2025.
  • Fast Fashion: Roughly 87% of clothing is discarded or burned each year, costing US$100 billion.
  • Plastics: Over 95% of plastic packaging value is wasted every year, costing up to US$120 billion.

As natural resources decline and waste continues to pile up, our society is at a crossroads.

A Tale of Two Economies

Today, most of the world follows the Take-Make-Waste practices of the linear economy, with little regard for future use of these resources and products. Unfortunately, most of this ends up in landfills─by 2050, we could be producing 3.4 billion tonnes of waste each year.

The circular economy, by contrast, is focused on redesigning our systems, processes, and products to enable goods to be used longer, repurposed, or recycled more efficiently.

The circular economy is a major transformational force that will last decades…investors are increasingly considering sustainability factors when making investment decisions.

—BlackRock

Companies and governments that choose to adopt a circular economic model could end up saving €600 billion (US$663 billion) annually─and potentially add €1.8 trillion (US$2 trillion) in additional benefits to Europe’s overall economy.

Designing a Better Future

Three major factors are driving the gradual, global shift to a circular economy.

  1. Economic

    Companies will need to switch from wasteful to sustainable practices, and many are taking steps towards a better future. The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was signed in 2018 by over 400 organisations to eliminate plastic waste and pollution.

  2. Regulatory

    Regulations such as bans on single-use plastics and international waste imports are growing more stringent, and some governments are also offering tax incentives for corporations that follow sustainable practices.

  3. Society

    More consumers are actively researching and questioning the impacts of the products they buy, and consumer demand is showing a preference for reusable products and practices.

While few public companies today are actively using a circular economy, several major brands are leading the way in sustainable business practices.

  • Philips: Light-as-a-service that provides access to lighting rather than ownership of lightbulbs
  • Levi Strauss: Repurposing old garments into building insulation, upholstery, and new clothing
  • Toshiba: First multi-function printer, heat-sensitive erasable toner can do up to five reprints per page
  • Renault: Revamped old vehicle drive trains, engines, and gearboxes to almost-new condition

Companies and governments in the circular economy have a structural advantage to solve some of the world’s biggest economic issues ─ giving them a strong, long-term market for goods and services, the potential to lower costs, and open profitable new business streams.

Lasting Impact on People, Planet, and Profit

In order for the circular economic model to achieve widespread adoption, both sustainable investment and partnerships across sectors are needed.

This rally for change is making an impact on financial markets─sustainable investments around the world grew from US$13.3 trillion in 2012 to US$30.7 trillion in 2018.

Healthy economies rely on a healthy environment, and building a circular economy is integral to the future health of our economy, planet, and society.

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Energy

Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts

This infographic takes a look at what China’s energy transition plans are to make its energy mix carbon neutral by 2060.

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China Energy Mix

Visualizing China’s Energy Transition in 5 Charts

In September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the steps his nation would take to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 via videolink before the United Nations Assembly in New York.

This infographic takes a look at what this ambitious plan for China’s energy would look like and what efforts are underway towards this goal.

China’s Ambitious Plan

A carbon-neutral China requires changing the entire economy over the next 40 years, a change the IEA compares to the ambition of the reforms that industrialized the country’s economy in the first place.

China is the world’s largest consumer of electricity, well ahead of the second place consumer, the United States. Currently, 80% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, but this plan envisions only 14% coming from coal, oil, and natural gas in 2060.

Energy Source20252060% Change
Coal52%3%-94%
Oil18%8%-56%
Natural Gas10%3%-70%
Wind4%24%+500%
Nuclear3%19%+533%
Biomass2%5%+150%
Solar3%23%+667%
Hydro8%15%+88%

Source: Tsinghua University Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy; U.S. EIA

According to the Carbon Brief, China’s 14th five-year plan appears to enshrine Xi’s goal. This plan outlines a general and non specific list of projects for a new energy system. It includes the construction of eight large-scale clean energy centers, coastal nuclear power, electricity transmission routes, power system flexibility, oil-and-gas transportation, and storage capacity.

Progress Towards Renewables?

While the goal seems far off in the future, China is on a trajectory towards reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity grid with declining coal usage, increased nuclear, and increased solar power capacity.

According to ChinaPower, coal fueled the rise of China with the country using 144 million tonnes of oil equivalent “Mtoe” in 1965, peaking at 1,969 Mtoe in 2013. However, its share as part of the country’s total energy mix has been declining since the 1990s from ~77% to just under ~60%.

Another trend in China’s energy transition will be the greater consumption of energy as electricity. As China urbanized, its cities expanded creating greater demand for electricity in homes, businesses, and everyday life. This trend is set to continue and approach 40% of total energy consumed by 2030 up from ~5% in 1990.

Under the new plan, by 2060, China is set to have 42% of its energy coming from solar and nuclear while in 2025 it is only expected to be 6%. China has been adding nuclear and solar capacity and expects to add the equivalent of 20 new reactors by 2025 and enough solar power for 33 million homes (110GW).

Changing the energy mix away from fossil fuels, while ushering in a new economic model is no small task.

Up to the Task?

China is the world’s factory and has relatively young industrial infrastructure with fleets of coal plants, steel mills, and cement factories with plenty of life left.

However, China also is the biggest investor in low-carbon energy sources, has access to massive technological talent, and holds a strong central government to guide the transition.

The direction China takes will have the greatest impact on the health of the planet and provide guidance for other countries looking to change their energy mixes, for better or for worse.

The world is watching…even if it’s by videolink.

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Energy

Visualizing 50+ Years of the G20’s Energy Mix

Watch how the energy mix of G20 countries has evolved over the last 50+ years.

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G20 Energy Mix share

Visualizing 50+ Years of the G20’s Energy Mix (1965–2019)

Over the last 50 years, the energy mix of G20 countries has changed drastically in some ways.

With many countries and regions pledging to move away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner sources of energy, the overall energy mix is becoming more diversified. But shutting down plants and replacing them with new sources takes time, and most countries are still incredibly reliant on fossil fuels.

This video from James Eagle uses data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy to examine how the energy mix of G20 members has changed from 1965 to 2019.

G20’s Energy History: Fossil Fuel Dependence (1965–1999)

At first, there was oil and coal.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, energy consumption in the G20 countries relied almost entirely on these two fossil fuels. They were the cheapest and most efficient sources of energy for most, though some countries also used a lot of natural gas, like the United States, Mexico, and Russia.

Country (Energy Mix - 1965)OilCoalOther
🇦🇷 Argentina83%3%14%
🇦🇺 Australia45%50%5%
🇧🇷 Brazil66%8%26%
🇨🇦 Canada47%13%40%
🇨🇳 China8%87%5%
🇪🇺 EU47%45%8%
🇫🇷 France49%37%14%
🇩🇪 Germany34%63%3%
🇮🇳 India24%67%9%
🇮🇩 Indonesia86%2%12%
🇮🇹 Italy66%11%23%
🇯🇵 Japan56%31%13%
🇲🇽 Mexico61%3%36%
🇷🇺 Russia29%50%21%
🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia98%0%2%
🇿🇦 South Africa19%81%0%
🇰🇷 South Korea20%77%3%
🇹🇷 Turkey46%47%7%
🇬🇧 UK38%59%3%
🇺🇸 U.S.45%22%33%

But the use of oil for energy started to decrease, beginning most notably in the 1980s. Rocketing oil prices forced many utilities to turn to coal and natural gas (which were becoming cheaper), while others in countries like France, Japan, and the U.S. embraced the rise of nuclear power.

This is most notable in countries with high historic oil consumption, like Argentina and Indonesia. In 1965, these three countries relied on oil for more than 83% of energy, but by 1999, oil made up just 55% of Indonesia’s energy mix and 36% of Argentina’s.

Even Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, began to utilize oil less. By 1999, oil was used for 65% of energy in the country, down from a 1965 high of 97%.

G20’s Energy Mix: Gas and Renewables Climb (2000–2019)

The conversation around energy changed in the 21st century. Before, countries were focused primarily on efficiency and cost, but very quickly, they had to start contending with emissions.

Climate change was already on everyone’s radar. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, and the resulting Kyoto Protocol aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997.

But when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005, countries had very different options available to them. Some started to lean more heavily on hydroelectricity, though countries that already utilized them like Canada and Brazil had to look elsewhere. Others turned to nuclear power, but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan turned many away.

This is the period of time that renewables started to pick up steam, primarily in the form of wind power at first. By 2019, the G20 members that relied on renewables the most were Brazil (16%), Germany (16%), and the UK (14%).

Country (Energy Mix - 2019)Natural GasNuclearHydroelectricRenewablesOther
🇦🇷 Argentina49%2%10%4%35%
🇦🇺 Australia30%0%2%7%61%
🇧🇷 Brazil10%1%29%16%44%
🇨🇦 Canada31%6%24%4%35%
🇨🇳 China8%2%8%5%77%
🇪🇺 EU22%11%4%10%53%
🇫🇷 France16%37%5%6%36%
🇩🇪 Germany24%5%1%16%54%
🇮🇳 India6%1%4%4%85%
🇮🇩 Indonesia18%0%2%4%76%
🇮🇹 Italy40%0%6%10%44%
🇯🇵 Japan21%3%4%6%66%
🇲🇽 Mexico42%1%3%5%49%
🇷🇺 Russia54%6%6%0%34%
🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia37%0%0%0%63%
🇿🇦 South Africa3%2%0%2%93%
🇰🇷 South Korea16%11%0%2%71%
🇹🇷 Turkey24%0%12%6%58%
🇬🇧 UK36%6%1%14%43%
🇺🇸 U.S.32%8%3%6%51%

However, the need to reduce emissions quickly made many countries make a simpler switch: cut back on oil and coal and utilize more natural gas. Bituminous coal, one of the most commonly used in steam-electric power stations, emits 76% more CO₂ than natural gas. Diesel fuel and heating oil used in oil power plants emit 38% more CO₂ than natural gas.

As countries begin to push more strongly towards a carbon-neutral future, the energy mix of the 2020s and onward will continue to change.

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