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The growth we want is sustainable: Harnessing innovation for a circular economy for all

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With rapidly growing competition for resources and increasing waste and pollution, the need to move towards an inclusive circular economic system is growing.  A circular economy has the incentives and means to use existing resources in an efficient and sustainable fashion – relying on renewable energy sources, extracting more value from waste products, minimizing food waste, and increasing the quality of life for all segments of society. 

Perhaps most importantly, this transition poses tremendous opportunities. While, coupled with rapid technological change and increasing globalization, some existing jobs, economic sectors, and production processes will become obsolete, it will also nurture fertile ground for new and green jobs and new economic sectors. This is already happening: the rapidly growing sharing economy is one example of how we can not only use resources more efficiently, but also make them increasingly affordable.

But we are only getting started and have a long road ahead of us. The Circularity Gap Report presented at the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos estimates that only 9% of the global economy is circular today. That is not enough. We clearly have to move faster. The problem is that we cannot know in advance what will work and what will not. Instead, we have to try out different solutions and scale up what works. In other words, we need innovation. But innovation does not only mean scientific research and shiny new technologies: the ways we use them, the ways we set the rules of the game, and the ways we create the right incentives matter much more.

This was the central message that emerged from the discussion “The Growth we Want is Sustainable: Harnessing innovation for a circular economy for all”, organized by UNECE and UN Environment on 9 July as a side-event for the 2019 High-Level Political Forum. Speakers from governments, businesses, and civil society shared ideas and experiences from different parts of the UNECE region and beyond.

“The circular economy is a compulsory choice for a sustainable world” said UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova. Emphasizing the need for innovative solutions to re-shape linear economies, she highlighted the importance of exploring new channels to move forward: “We are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, which is changing the societies and economies in ways we have never imagined before. Therefore, what we need is to enable experimentation – with technologies, policies, governance arrangements, and business ides”.

UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and solar aviation pioneer Bertrand Piccard warned that today’s model of quantitative growth is leading us to environmental chaos, climate change and depletion of natural resources. “Qualitative growth means that we can create jobs and make profit by replacing the old, outdated, inefficient and polluted infrastructures by new modern and efficient ones, ones that can protect the environment. This is the market of the century”, he urged, arguing that “this is the way to speak the language of the people we want to convince”.

Central to the resulting multi-stakeholder dialogue is innovation – the driving force of the transition towards inclusive and circular economic growth. Stakeholders, including representatives of UNECE member States Sweden, Germany, Georgia and Finland, as well the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), discussed challenges, opportunities and best practices of transforming the existing system of production and consumption patterns from a life-cycle perspective.

This mechanism involves applying frontier technologies, such as IT and artificial intelligence, business models that re-shape product life-cycles, and sharing platforms in different sectors which make way for more sustainable consumption. The high cost of experimentation calls for knowledge-based solutions to identify the right partnerships and sources of finance that will enable and promote innovative high-growth entrepreneurship within SMEs towards a new service-based economy. R&D partnerships with academia in less advanced economies will ensure the necessary digital transfer, while developing targeted skills and supporting life-long learning for the jobs of the future, and distributional aspects through bold social protection, will ensure that no-one is left behind.

Stakeholders further expressed their wish to continue the dialogue on inclusive circular economic growth and long-term sustainability, and to look into supporting policies, norms and standards, developed through multilateralism and partnership at the regional and global level, to reach the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

UNECE fosters cross-sectoral linkages to further accelerate these processes, bringing countries, civil society, and the private sector together towards the common goal of a systemic transition to more sustainable production and consumption practices. To this end, UNECE is pooling its multisectoral expertise through an integrated “nexus” approach to 2030 Agenda delivery. Examples of initiatives to support countries’ shift to the circular economy include a resource management framework that helps make use of valuable resources from mining and landfill, policy recommendations on recycling, the development of a blockchain-supported application to enable a circular approach along garment and footwear sector value chains, and an innovative and unique IT- supported food loss management system to repurpose and bring back into the supply chain food that would otherwise be lost. 

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China will aim to plant and conserve 70 billion trees by 2030

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Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change announced the country’s active response to the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org initiative, the platform supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The World Economic Forum and China Green Foundation will actively echo and support the contribution to be implemented in China. This initiative will encourage society-wide stakeholders, including enterprises, individuals, and local governments at all levels to commit with actions to plant, conserve, restore and manage 70 billion trees in China by 2030.

1t.org was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting two years ago to support the growing momentum around nature-based solutions by mobilizing the private sector, facilitating regional multi-stakeholder partnerships, and supporting innovation and ecopreneurship on the ground.

During his speech at the Forum’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Davos, Xie Zhenhua said: ‘China’s forest cover and forest stock volume have been growing in the last 30 years, and China accounts for more than 25% of the world’s new green areas. China responds actively to contribute to the 1t.org initiative from the World Economic Forum, and I am announcing here that China aims to plant and conserve 70 billion trees within 10 years to green our planet, combat climate change, and increase forest carbon sinks.’

In support of this bold contribution, Chairman Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum said:

‘We appreciate China’s effort in supporting the 1t.org initiative of the World Economic Forum and relevant UN initiatives, we highly appreciate China’s practices upholding relative international commitment such as the Paris Agreement and Biodiversity target through Nature-Based Solutions.’

China’s Bold Action

In the past decade, China has regrown more than 70 million hectares of forest cover. The country has benefited greatly from solutions in biodiversity conservation, sustainable usage and climate governance, resulting in wetland and forest restoration that also combats desertification.

China’s 14th “Five Year Plan” has a stated target of increasing forest coverage to 24.1% by 2025, and forest stock volume up to 19 billion cubic meters. Science-based greening efforts and inter-ministerial cooperation have provided the key vehicle for forest ecosystem restoration.

China’s contribution will encourage the 1t.org initiative to collaborate more closely in the local context to fulfill this contribution and will stimulate collective community actions at large scales and empower Chinese organizations and individuals to make contributions. China’s active response to 1t.org displays the nation’s capacity and strong commitment to safeguard the Paris Agreement and post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

How Trees Can Play Their Part

China’s land restoration and afforestation projects provide fundamental support to the country’s poverty reduction targets of elevating 20 million people out of poverty, with the lives of 3 million people already improved through increased household income. Healthy and resilient forests are also part of people’s expectations for better living qualities according to China’s strategy. During the period of China’s13th Five year plan, the Chinese forest tourism industry grew substantially with an annual average of 1.5 billion tourists visiting national forests.

Mobilize Society-wide Action, Plant Future Trees of Hopes

China’s active response to the 1t.org initiative encourages all stakeholders to promote solutions and activities to meet climate and nature targets. These include emission reduction policies for committed companies and individuals; guiding local governments to promote climate adaptation activities such as afforestation and ecological restoration, engaging scientific organizations, think-tanks, and civil societies to promote accountable and credible tools and evaluation frameworks; creating digital environments and crowd funding opportunities for innovation solutions; and adding afforestation and carbon storage incentives.

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More Industrial Hubs to Accelerate Their Net-Zero Transition

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Four leading industrial clusters in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US today announced that they are working together with the World Economic Forum to reduce their carbon emissions faster through the Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net Zero initiative.

Launched at COP26 in November 2021, the initiative aims to accelerate the decarbonization of hard-to-abate industrial sectors, while maximizing job creation and economic competitiveness. The approach focuses on building cross-industry and cross-cluster partnerships to better implement low-carbon technologies – as in the case of the regionally developed Basque Hydrogen Corridor – and on accessing public funding and blended-finance options for clusters’ decarbonization projects.

Under this initiative, the World Economic Forum, working closely with Accenture and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as knowledge partners, connects private and public stakeholders to assess how to meet individual and collective decarbonization goals, fosters new enabling policies and provides guidance and support for local community engagement.

Industrial clusters are geographic regions where industrial companies are concentrated, making them an attractive target for impactful emissions reduction strategies. Since industrial assets are located in close proximity of each other, sharing of infrastructure (such as CO2 and hydrogen pipelines or renewable energy assets), financial and operational risks, and natural and human resources becomes possible. This also provides opportunities to deploy and scale new green technologies, such as hydrogen and the capture, utilization and storage of carbon for industrial applications, enabling a systemic approach to emissions reduction.

The clusters joining the initiative are:

· Brightlands Circular Space, together with Brightlands Chemelot Campus, Chemelot, and the Chemelot Circular Hub in Geleen, Netherlands. It will help accelerate the energy transition and circular economy.

· H2Houston Hub, formed through the Center for Houston’s Future and encompassing more than 100 organizations and companies. It will leverage the Houston area’s position as the US’s largest hydrogen producer and consumer, and use innovation and scale to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen and emissions.

· Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance, with approximately 100 corporate, governmental and community organization members. It will lead the region’s campaign to establish a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, US.

· Port of Antwerp-Bruges, Europe’s second-largest port. It will drive the circular economy and energy transition.

These four large industrial emissions centres, involving oil and gas extraction and processing, shipping, heavy-duty transportation, chemicals and other sectors, currently account for CO2 emissions of 296 million metric tonnes per year – greater than the annual emissions of Poland. They employ more than 470,000 people and represent an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $135 billion.

“Supporting industrial clusters and corporate partners in the development and implementation of their net-zero strategies is at the heart of what we do,” said Roberto Bocca, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Platform, World Economic Forum. “We are proud to leverage our collaborative platform and expertise in partnership building to grow the clusters initiative as well as other decarbonization efforts we support, such as the First Movers Coalition, Mission Possible Partnership and Clean Hydrogen Initiative.”

The four new clusters join four others in the UK (Zero Carbon Humber and Hynet North West), Australia (Kwinana Industries Council) and Spain (Basque Net-Zero Industrial Supercluster), which were part of the initial launch of the initiative. Based on metrics provided by each cluster, all eight clusters could potentially save more than 334 million tonnes of CO2 – more than the equivalent annual emissions output of France. They could also create and protect 1.1 million jobs and contribute $182 billion to regional GDP.

“The Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance seeks to locate a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, leading to the eventual decarbonization of much of the transportation, electricity, industrial and heating sectors,” said Kirt Conrad, Co-Founder, Ohio Clean Hydrogen Alliance and Chief Executive Officer, Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. “Investment into a clean hydrogen hub in Ohio will help create massive economic, environmental and health benefits for the state and its citizens.”

“With our focus on becoming the premier circular ecosystem in Europe, it is of upmost importance that we foster competitive collaboration between the companies in our cluster as well as with other global clusters,” said Lia Voermans, Director Brightlands Circular Space, “We believe that this initiative provides a gateway to access the best practices and processes supporting industrial decarbonization.”

The new clusters are already actively advancing their decarbonization journey. For instance, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is starting to convert hydrogen into sustainable raw materials and fuel for the port’s chemicals sector, whereas the Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance has developed hydrogen fuel cell buses which tour around the US, educating transit authorities on the potential and viability of clean transportation. However, to achieve net-zero emissions, these efforts must be scaled up. Often, financial mechanisms, rather than technology, are the main roadblock, and policy frameworks to support valuable future technologies are lacking. As value chains are transformed, the creation of new partnerships will be key.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low carbon world,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. “Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world.”

“The Port of Antwerp-Bruges hosts Europe’s largest chemical cluster and supports the European Green Deal to become climate neutral by 2050,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, Chief Executive Officer, Port of Antwerp. “To reach this goal we will all have to work together with respect for individual company needs, industry characteristics and timing. The Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net-Zero initiative is a means to inspire and incentivize companies to share best practices in our common pursuit of staying well below 2°C.”

In addition to the eight clusters currently involved in the initiative, more than a dozen in the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region are also in the process of joining. The aim is to build a community of 100 global industrial clusters to accelerate industrial decarbonization.

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Global Food Crisis Must Be Solved Alongside Climate Crisis

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Instability in Ukraine is threatening to intensify an already precarious global food security outlook. Increasing prices of fertilizers and inaccessibility of Ukrainian exports have made a delicate situation potentially dire, as 800 million people now go hungry each night. Russian blockades of Ukrainian ports have further intensified world leaders’ focus on worsening food insecurity.

“Failure to open the ports is a declaration of war on global food security,” said David Beasley, Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme. The pandemic had already complicated global efforts to reduce famine and food insecurity, and those challenges have only intensified with the conflict in Ukraine. “We’re taking food from the hungry to give to the starving,” said Beasley of the recent conditions.

Food insecurity is a problem not only for public health but also for geopolitics and security. “Hungry societies break down wherever you are in the world,” said Julia Chatterley, Anchor, CNN.

There is a risk that short-term efforts to combat food shortages could come at the expense of meeting climate and sustainability targets given the interconnection between agriculture and climate change. Global food production contributes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and efforts to ramp up food supply could worsen emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Innovation technologies and regenerative techniques can improve agricultural productivity. “Agriculture has to be part of the solution to climate change and the solution for food security,” said J. Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group. The goal must be growing more food on less land and, to do so, farmers can employ best practices from both organic and conventional farming. He advised that EU food policy reforms that shift away from a focus on organics towards targets on productivity and emission reduction could better address the current crisis. Techniques such as crop rotation and covering land in winter better protect soil and help farmers increase yield with less fertilizer.

Africa can play a major role in improving global food security, but the continent faces multiple challenges to unlocking agricultural productivity. Already, famine has intensified social and political turmoil in several countries. “If we don’t silence the guns, it’s not going to work,” said Philip Isdor Mpango, Vice-President of Tanzania, regarding the goal of increasing agricultural productivity. He pointed to the continent’s young population – with roughly 70% of the population aged 25 or younger – and the need to include youth in improving agricultural productivity. “We must strategize so we have the youthful population involved in agricultural value chains.”

Another challenge relates to post-harvest losses. Approximately one third of the continent’s food production is lost after harvest due to poor infrastructure, storage and other challenges. Investing in irrigation, transport infrastructure and storage facilities can improve Africa’s contribution to global food security.

Viet Nam is experiencing the current food crisis alongside intensified effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion. The nation has a plan to become a “food innovation hub in South-East Asia,” said Le Minh Khai, Deputy Prime Minister of Viet Nam. Doing so requires a holistic approach that balances short-term and long-term strategies and involves multinational organizations, entrepreneurs, investors and farmers.

Both wealthy and developing nations have a key role to play, particularly given that food production must increase more than 60% by 2050 to feed the world. “Solving the global food crisis is everyone’s business,” said Mariam Mohammed Saeed Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, United Arab Emirates.

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