Today it became clear that the cooperation between Europe and China in the framework of the BRI can contribute both to balanced development of the partners and the risks of new challenges in the dialogue between the States-parties of the initiative. Thus, both sides of the dialog learned their lessons and mistakes and can implement new improvement in resolving the current problems and challenges in cooperation within BRI.
China is the founder and the main country of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is one of the most interested in implementing BRI country, but during period 2013 – 2020 it faced a number of challenges, which have to be resolved to fully enjoy the benefits and profits of the initiative.
Analyzing the possible challenges facing the mechanism of cooperation between China and countries of Europe, the article proposes a number of recommendations, made under the backdrop of many other conflicting realities with regard to harmonize the relation between countries-participant of the initiative, which can be implemented by Chinese side of the Initiative.
To take into account the geopolitical situation in the CEE region and establish relations with other interested countries.
Analysis of China – CEE relations has shown that the basis of bilateral cooperation is not strong enough today. China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe belong to different civilizations, they are geographically far from each other, and after the end of the Cold War, the former ideological unity between them disappeared.
Since three-quarters of the CEE countries have already become members of the EU, following the common European foreign and security policy, China needs to balance two areas – relations with the EU and diplomacy with each country separately. Deepening ties with CEE countries is necessary to promote the “One belt, One road” initiative, but the “triangle” of China – EU – Central and Eastern European relations should be taken into account when creating a cooperation mechanisms.
For example, the EU has a strong presence in the CEE region by promoting a set of economic rules. The US maintains a military presence there. Germany considers CEE as a region of its’ traditional influence. Russia also has important geopolitical interests there.
The EU expresses doubts about the 17 + 1 format and sees it as a manifestation of China’s “divide and rule”policy. The US, through the NATO security structures, firmly controls the political and military development of 17 States. Although the US has expressed a positive assessment of the 17 + 1 format, it is constantly increasing its’ influence on Poland, the Baltic States, and the Eastern Balkans.
Because of the Ukrainian crisis, the US-led NATO bloc strengthened its control over CEE. Germany sees CEE as its “backyard” and traditional sphere of influence. The German government openly doubts the mechanism of China’s cooperation with the 17 CEE States, believing that it leads to the undermining of EU norms, which is unfavorable for European unity.
The influence of Russia in the region should not be underestimatedas well. The Central Asian and Eurasian economic space is very important for Russia, which is leading the process of economic integration and has a deep traditional influence and real interests (many countries in Central and Eastern Europe are heavily dependent on Russian energy resources).
It is also worth noting that due to historical reasons (CIS countries used to be underthe pressure from the USSR) and the current Ukrainian crisis, the CEE countries have noticeably increased their sense of distrust towards Russia. On this background, the relations of comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Russia can also cause“psychological pressure” on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to a certain extent. Therefore, China, in cooperation with the CEE countries, needs to find common ground between the interests of the Chinese side, the European, the Russian side and the CEE countries. It is very important to properly resolve the hidden problems and contradictions affecting the trilateral relations.
When China and CEE countries cooperate within the BRI, special attention should be paid to the existing mechanisms of cooperation within CEE, internal conflicts of CEE countries where, for historical reasons, national contradictions are huge, as well as to differences in the levels of development of CEE countries.
It is worth noting that political relations between China and the CEE countries remain“relatively slow” compared to economic relations. According to the researcher, this is due to the “superiority mentality” of some CEE countries towards China on issues of the political system, human rights, religion and other values. (In particular, Poland and the Czech Republic in 2003–2009 repeatedly criticized China on human rights issues and Tibet. In December 2008, during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Europe, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek met with him. As a result, this forced the Chinese government to keep its distance from the CEE countries in order to avoid political risks. This blocked China’s plans to increase the status of relations with the region in the overall structure of foreign policy.
Given the fact that 17 + 1 is an extension of China – Europe cooperation and the functions of the 17 + 1 format are limited, the agenda cannot be promoted indefinitely in all important areas. In this regards, to maintain the vitality of cooperation, it is necessary to increase the strategic height of cooperation. The UN, EU and OSCE platforms can be used to address the security issues facing the CEE region.
In China – CEE – EU relations, the principle of openness in order to take advantage of the opportunities to involve a third party in cooperation should be also adhered. In the 17 + 1 format, the mechanism for attracting observers should be widely opened, inviting countries, including the EU, international financial organizations and international organizations. The EU is an irremediable influence factor, through the 17 + 1 it is possible to promote mutual cooperation between China and the EU, while actively attracting important EU members such as Germany and France to become a third party to China – CEE cooperation.
In-depth analysis and harmonization of the legal framework for EU – China cooperation in the region.
Since the laws of the CEE countries are fully aligned with the EU in many aspects, the Chinese side should strengthen its knowledge and understanding of the relevant EU laws and regulations, which is a prerequisite for promoting the 17 + 1 cooperation. It is necessary to actively study the successful experience of the best Chinese enterprises in carrying out commercial activities in CEE, fully understand the hidden rules for investment in CEE countries and identify trade barriers.
An important role can be played by “outward-looking” Chinese enterprises. When investing abroad, they should follow international norms and market laws, pay attention to the international social responsibility of enterprises with Chinese capital. It is necessary to allow Chinese enterprises to thoroughly understand the local requirements of socio-economic development, diligently increase employment, emphasize openness and inclusiveness, the spirit of joint win-win cooperation, and eliminate doubts of the CEE countries about the feasibility of cooperation with China.
Europe should also be better informed about the goals, structure and significance of the BRI, both for the region and for individual countries.
The analysis showed that despite a lot of explanatory work from the Chinese side and the signing of relevant political documents, the European region lacks understanding that the BRI initiative reaches Europe: it is often mistakenly believed that it is intended only for China’s neighbors. In this regards, within the 17 + 1 mechanism, along with reaching a practical level of cooperation, problems have emerged that reduce the interest and expectations of European countries in the initiative, which is reflected in negative reviews of the initiative in the media and the lack of interest of countries in the implementation of infrastructure projects. In particular, the difference in economic opportunities and needs for cooperation among the 17 countries makes itself felt.
It is noted that on the background of China’s rapid rise and continuous increase in its international influence, assessments of the “One belt, One road” initiative and other aspects of China’s foreign strategy are affected by geopolitics or the “Cold War mentality”.
In this regards, the CEE countries’cooperation with China causes them to fear that their influence will be weaken and that China will use economic tools to “split” the unity of the EU. Due to this the EU is trying to minimize the impact of the PRC on the CEE region by tightening budget requirements, and as a result, small countries are afraid to take Chinese investment for infrastructure projects.
To address this challenge, the article recommends expanding the joint discussion of cooperation plans with CEE and EU countries. If specific economic plans are difficult to find, partners should offer the cooperation in other areas, in order to ensure equal participation of 17 countries in the construction of the BRI, supporting the balanced development of the existing mechanism of cooperation and not allowing these countries to lose enthusiasm in the absence of“big projects” (for example, together with Croatia, partners can train specialists in EU legislation, with Slovenia – share experience in environmental protection). Thus, the legal system, culture, education, science and technology are areas through which the BRI initiative can increase visibility for small and medium-sized CEE countries. On the Chinese side, it is necessary to transmit correct information to them, promote cooperation of research centers, organize international conferences, explain the ideals and practice of diplomacy of a large state with Chinese characteristics, and form a favorable public opinion.
Support for humanitarian cooperation should be provided through special funds.
Thus, the effective financial support mechanisms for the European (especially CEE) markets is needed. The governments of some of these countries cannot provide sovereign guarantees because they have exceeded the EU’s debt limit. For this reason, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have joined the European Union can not take preferential Chinese loans. In Europe, interest rates are low, and interest rates on Chinese commercial loans are higher, hence they are unattractive to CEE governments and businesses. To solve this problem, the creation of the 17 + 1 investment Bank and support of the creation of a regional multilateral international financial company of 17 + 1 should be discussed, as well as the experience of international financial organizations in the CEE region, adhered to a market orientation, and financial guarantees for bilateral cooperation should be provided.
To use the “One belt, One Road” as a framework for promoting practical cooperation between China and CEE
There is a need to link Chinese proposals with development projects that a particular CEE country is concerned about. (For example, Estonia’s plans to build a shale power plant in Jordan, which were slowed down by the fall in oil prices and the subsequent financial difficulties of the Estonian energy company. In 2016 The Chinese industrial and commercial Bank allocated money for this project, which was linked to the interests of China, since the construction contractor was the Guangdong heat and power engineering company).
European experts note that a promising direction is the construction of transport infrastructure, which, according to them, is relatively backward in CEE. In this regard, the study recommends to offer the CEE new comparative advantages of Chinese HSR (high-speed railway) and rolling stock for them and port mechanisms, along with the construction of airports. This will increase the level of industrialization in CEE countries, which is currently relatively low. Offering production cooperation in advanced industries, especially HSR, it will be possible to enter the European “outpost” through the Czech Republic and other countries with Chinese technologies. In addition, it is recommended that China can participate in the development of agricultural processing in CEE countries, where agriculture occupies an important place in the national economies. In this way, Chinese enterprises can help increase employment in CEE countries, which will improve the image of China in the region.
The strengthening of financial institutions and the alignment of the line of providing loans to CEE countries.
When the small nation of Montenegro approached the EUfor help paying off a nearly $1 billion loan to China’s Export – Import Bank (EXIM), borrowed to finance the construction of a large highway project, alarm bells were raised across Europe. The request presented the EU with a problem that members of the World Bank may soon find themselves grappling with – what to do about large loans for economically unviable projects already under construction as part of China’s BRI. The European Commission ultimately decided to reject Montenegro’s request, raising fundamental questions about the EU’s willingness to reckon with BRI’s expansion.
As BRI develops, the trade imbalance between China and CEE countries may grow noticeably. If imports from these countries do not increase, their debt to China will increase, this situation will not last long and will lead to a deterioration in the terms of trade and to friction. To avoid this, targeted incentives should be granted to products from CEE countries in order to expand their exports to China.
In addressing this challenge, China needsto coordinate its economic relations with the EU, taking into account that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are more oriented towards the EU in economy, trade and politics. Experts believe that the emerging TTIP agreement, which will bring the newest market standards and trade rules, may cause a blow to interaction with CEE countries. It will have an impact on the rules that China wants to set through the promotion of the BRI initiative, on the ability of Chinese enterprises to enter Central and Eastern European countries with investment and trade.
The possibility of “financial exhaustion” should also be taken into account, since the development of trade and economic ties with CEE through the BRI will require significant financial support. In addition to support from international financial organizations, more funds will be required from the Chinese side. Now the global economy is at a low point, China is in a period of economic transition, and the demand for money has become even greater. When deploying the BRI projects, it is impossible to exclude the depletion of finances within the country, hence partners should be prepared for the possible negative impact on the economic transition.
To strengthen humanitarian exchanges with ordinary people in CEE in order to deepen their understanding of China.
The Chinese Government should be encouraged by its EU partners to become a participant in the OECD Arrangement on Guidelines for Officially Supported Export Credits. In particular, it is recommended that, in monitoring progress towards a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the European Parliament seeks to ensure that China’s participation in the OECD framework is a key objective of the EU’s negotiating strategy.
An analysis of the public opinion of citizens of CEE countries showed that in many CEE countries, understanding of China is limited, and this is unfavorable for the development of cooperation. The study, in connection with the solution of this challenge, recommends opening more Confucius Institutes in CEE countries and supporting cultural dialogues within the BRI project.
Particular attention should be paid to the “greening” of China itself and BRI in particular. Thus, despite the narrative promoted by the Chinese government of a “Green Silk Road”, the environmental impact of many BRI-related projects continues to cause controversy. This includes effects on host country ecosystems and their biodiversity.
An example is the construction of a dam in the Batang Toru rainforest in Indonesia. Its construction has had devastating effects on biodiversity, leading it to be legally challenged by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI). The World Bank, meanwhile, has refused to fund the project over environmental concerns. Yet, in March 2019, the court in North Sumatra decided the project would proceed.
Another example of environmental concerns related to BRI infrastructure project is Montenegro’s Bar-Boljare Motorway. The construction began in 2015 by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), a subsidiary of the majority state owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), and is funded by China’s EXIM Bank.
Environmental concerns are specifically related to the Smokovac–Mateševo section of this project, which cuts across the Tara River, through an area protected by a UNESCO Biosphere. The most visible consequence of the project is the need for rock excavation for a motorway tunnel, but other implications, such as water pollution and illegal landfills also emerged from an investigation by the Montenegrin NGO MANS.The European Parliament and European Commission have called on authorities to share more details about the project’s environmental impact with the public.
It is also advisable that host governments start implementing more transparent bidding processes for infrastructure projects, in order to reduce environmental damage and increase long-term net benefits. On the other hand, in order to assess the environmental sustainability of projects with more accuracy and transparency, banks involved in financing the BRI should rely on third party reports, rather than those produced internally.
In order to improve transparency, it would be useful for the Chinese government to create a public portfolio of BRI-related projects, which would make it easier to verify to what extent they are environmentally sustainable. China does not directly operate as a unified actor in BRI-related infrastructural projects, but different actors such as State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and banks contribute to the realisation and funding and these should be made to comply with environmental standards.
These implications are especially relevant on a global level as well. The COVID-19 pandemic should arouse awareness about the scale of the consequences that phenomena such as deforestation and habitat fragmentation have on our planet and lives. As underlined by a recent Stanford University study, deforestation and landscape fragmentation have been recognised as facilitating direct transmission of zoonotic infections, including the risk of pandemics.
To sum up, it is worth noting that althoughit is extremely difficult to implement these recommendations in practice, however, China started to implement them even before the official start of the initiative. Thus, their gradual implementation can in the near future eliminate the negative consequences of the problematic areas in the PRC – CEE – EU relations and reduce the risk of its inflaming.
COVID-19: New Dynamics to the World’s Politico-Economic Structure
How ironic it is that a virus invisible from a naked human eye can manage to topple down the world and its dynamics. Breaking out of CoronaVirus, its spread across the globe and the diversity of consequences faced by the individual states all make it evident how the dynamics of the world could be reversed in months. Starting from the blame games regarding coronavirus to its geostrategic implications and the entire enigma between COVID-19 and politics, COVID-19 and economies have shaken the world. Whether it is the acclaimed super power, struggling powers or third world states or even individuals, the pandemic has unveiled the capability and credibility of all, especially in political and economic domains. Wearing masks in public, avoiding hand shake and maintaining distance from one another have emerged as ‘new normal’ in the social world of interaction.
Since the pandemic has locked its eyes upon the globe, world politics has taken an unfortunate drift. From the opportunities for leaders to abuse power during state of emergency (which is imposed in different states to limit the spread of novel Coronavirus) to the likelihood of rise of far-right nationalists to the emergence of ‘travel bubbles’ between states (such as New Zealand and Australia) and the increased chances of regionalism in post-pandemic world to the new terrorist strategies to gain support and many others, all are result of the pandemic’s impact on the political world, one way or the other. Since the end of WWII, the United States has taken the role of global leadership and after the Cold War, it became more prominent as it was the sole superpower of the world. Talking ideally, pandemics are perceived to bring up global cooperation but in the COVID-19 scenario it has started a whole new set of debates, sparkled nativism versus globalization and the sharp divide in global politics has drifted the focus from overcoming the global pandemic through global response to inward looking policies of leaders.
Covid-19 has impacted every sphere of life, be it social, political, health or economic. The pandemic itself being the result of a globalized world has affected globalization badly. It is the best illustration of the interrelation of politics and economics and how the steps in one sector impact the other in this interdependent, globalized world. Political actions such as restricting travel had drastic economic impacts especially to the countries whose economy is largely dependent on tourism, foreign investment etc. Similarly, economic actions such as limiting foreign products’ access had political implications in the form of sudden unemployment and downturn in living standards of people.
For the first time in history, oil prices became negative when its demand suddenly dropped when industries were shut down almost everywhere. Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil clash which led to increased oil production by Saudi Arabia further complicated the situation. This unprecedented drop in oil demand and consequently its price would only help in the economic recovery of countries. Covid-19 has impacted three sectors badly. First of all, it affected production as global manufacturing has declined due to decrease in demand. Secondly, it has created supply chain and market disruption. Finally, lockdowns affected local businesses everywhere. Bad impact aside, pandemic has led to the change in demand of products. Instead of investment and foreign trade, states having strong medical and textiles industries have got the opportunity of increasing exports. This is because there are requirements of face masks everywhere to avoid contagion. Need for medical instruments have also increased such as ventilators in developing countries specially.
The only positive impact of Coronavirus is that it fostered environmental cleanliness. It is said that it can avert a climate emergency but the fact is that, as soon as the lockdown will be eased and businesses will begin returning into functioning, economic growth and prosperity will be prioritized over sustainability and we might even witness, more than ever, carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Novel coronavirus has brought new dynamics to the world’s politico-economic structure. While the world has the opportunity to come close for cooperation and consensus to fight it, we might witness increased regionalism in the post-pandemic world as a cautious measure and alternative where crisis management would be more cooperative and quick. There is a likelihood of the emergence of an international treaty or regime to ban bio-weapons. While the prevalence of political optimism is not assured in the post-pandemic world, we are likely to see the interdependent economic world, as before, to overcome the economic slump and revive the global economy.
The free trade vision and its fallacies: The case of the African Continental Free Trade Area
The notion of free trade consists of the idea of a trade policy where no restrictions will be implemented on imports or exports in the respected countries that have signed such an agreement. Some economists argue that free trade is understood through the idea of the free market being forced through international trade. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a trade area that was founded in 2018, and it is the most ambiguous project in the history of the continent. This project has plenty of potential successes, as well as fallacies. Particular African nations are either in favor or against this project, and it is a matter of time before the world understands if this project will reflect the true notion behind the idea of a free trade policy.
The African Continental Free Trade Area: The European Union Vision in Africa?
The African Continental Free Trade Area was founded in 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda. It is believed to be the most prestigious project ever created on the continent. It was created by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and it was signed by 44 countries. Some of the general objectives of this agreement include: The creation of a single economic market, the establishment of a liberalized market, the allowance of free movement of capital and people, diversification of the industrial development in the continent, e.t.c. In some ways, this project can be compared with the European Union and the vision that it represents for a single market and free movement of goods and people. However, due to the size and the geopolitical tensions of the African continent, there are a few obstacles to the achievement of this project. The European Union itself was a project that took more than half a century to be established in its current form, and still, we can see some problems that remain. With that being said, among the 27 member states, there seems to be more or less a coherent economic and political stability. In the case of the African Union, there are far more obstacles, ranging from huge economic differences, political and religious turmoils, and in general a neglected infrastructure; that might not be able to support a mammoth project like this. Any sort of optimism should be also approached with a realistic perspective when it comes to its implementation, which might not be happening anytime soon, certainly not before 2030.
The Relevance of the Free Trade Notion in Africa
It is important to remember that this project deals with the concept of free trade, and free trade itself is something that economists still argue about. Generally speaking, most economists seem to be in favor of free trade. There is an argument that supports the idea of free trade and any kind of reduction in government-induced restrictions on free trade which will be beneficial to economic growth and stability. On the other hand, some economists suggest that the policy of protectionism could be a more lucrative alternative for an economic policy. There is a suggestion that the liberalization of trade will result in an unequal distribution of losses and profit gains while economically dislocating a large number of workers in import-competing sectors.
In the case of the AfCFTA however, the opinion of Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist, might be more relevant. He suggested that if there is going to be any kind of free trade liberalization in the African continent, some prior steps should be taken. For example, the improvement of the institutions in those developing African nations must be achieved to have sustainable economic growth and development. In addition, the idea of demanding from the developing nations to achieve institutional standards that we see in the developed nations such as the U.S or Great Britain, but have never before been achieved in those countries, will only hurt these nations since they might not need or even afford the implementation of these institutions that we see in the West. There is a valid point in the argument because the concept of the AfCFTA might indeed benefit some nations in Africa, but still, it will not develop to its full potential to benefit all 44 countries that have signed the agreement. This is because this project involves countries with different views and needs. Some of them see the AfCFTA as a blessing for the liberalization of the African economy, while other nations are more skeptical about it, thinking that this project will result in African states “biting off, more than they can chew”. This dichotomy is visually striking when we compare some African nations and examine the true reasons why they are in favor or against the AfCFTA.
The African Dichotomy
Rwanda is a small nation in East Africa, having at least 12.5 million people, with a total estimate of its GDP being close to $33.45 billion. A very impressive number, if someone considers the fact that in 1980 its GDP was barely $2.1 billion. It is also the nation that is strongly in favor of the ambitious free trade project in the continent. It is estimated that from 1994 until 2010, Rwanda’s economy grew an average of 6.6%. This is mostly based on the fact that the president of the country, Paul Kagame, led a strong campaign towards the liberalization of the country’s agricultural sector. His reforms allowed the producers to benefit from this liberalization boom while boosting productivity through capital investments. It is clear by now that any sort of project that aims to liberalize the economies of other African nations will be beneficial to Rwanda that aims, as President Paul Kagame mentioned before, to make Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa”.
However, some countries pose some key arguments that need to be addressed for the AfCFTA. There are concerns regarding the massive difference between populations in many African states, as well as the potential of the markets to sustain such a project. With that being said, there is still optimism from some experts that view this project as a win-win situation for Africa since it will allow a trade-led diversification away from Africa’s commodity dependence and focus towards industrial development. On the other hand, this optimism is being taken with a “pinch of salt” from certain African nations, like Nigeria. Nigeria is a nation of at least 205 million people with a total GDP of $1.087 trillion. Nigeria was one of the last nations to sign the agreement, but not before firmly opposing the deal. The strongest argument that Nigeria had against the deal, was the fact that Nigeria could do nothing to undermine the local Nigerian manufactures and entrepreneurs of the country. There was strong domestic opposition to regional trade liberalization and concerns about the government’s ability to implement it effectively. In the same line of thought, Togo’s Foreign Minister Robert Dussey did not hide his concerns. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Mr. Dussey stressed the fact that many African countries will need to be firstly well-equipped with the right technical tools to meet the challenges of such an enormous project. He shared his views that some rich nations in the West are not so keen to see the potential industrialization of the African continent: “African development is foremost the responsibility of Africans. We have a problem with work for our youth. It is important that we have strong industries to have work for the young”, said Mr. Dussey for Deutsche Welle.
Can we safely say that the AfCFTA project complies with the economic policy of free trade? Theoretically, it does. The project has the potential to change the socio-economic status of all the countries involved. Even if some nations are more industrialized than others, and can take full advantage of the opportunities for manufactured goods, other nations that might not be so privileged can benefit by linking their economies into regional value chains. This can happen again theoretically if there is a reduction in trade costs and facilitating investments. However, one should not overlook the growing challenges of this project. It is not feasible to suggest a 90% tariff cut, a unified digital payments system, and an African trade observatory dashboard that the AU Commission promises in the next five years. For the simple reason that you cannot have this liberalized economic system when most of the African countries are suffering from socio-political instability. How can a system which in some ways is based on the European Union, work when there is such a striking inequality among African nations? There is a lack of industrial infrastructure to support such a project, and it will be more beneficial to address these regional problems before expanding in a global vision. One day Africa will reach its full potential, but not in the next five years and not in the next ten years. Such an agreement is a blessing, but it needs careful examination before being implemented; otherwise, we will talk about a disaster in the African continent that could potentially bring more inequality and regional tensions.
Turning to sustainable global business: 5 things to know about the circular economy
Due to the ever-increasing demands of the global economy, the resources of the planet are being used up at an alarming rate and waste and pollution are growing fast. The idea of a more sustainable “circular economy” is gaining traction, but what does this concept mean, and can it help save the planet?
1) Business as usual, the path to catastrophe
Unless we make some major adjustments to the way the planet is run, many observers believe that business as usual puts us on a path to catastrophe.
Around 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress (when the demand for water is greater than the available amount), and a significant proportion of the harmful emissions that are driving climate change, is caused by the way we use and process natural resources.
Over the past three decades, the amount of raw materials extracted from the earth, worldwide, has more than doubled. At the current rate of extraction, we’re on course to double the amount again, by 2060.
According to the International Resource Panel, a group of independent expert scientists brought together by the UN to examine the issue, this puts us in line for a three to six degree temperature increase, which would be deadly for much life on Earth.
2) A circular economy means a fundamental change of direction
Whilst there is no universally agreed definition of a circular economy, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly, the UN’s flagship environment conference, described it as a model in which products and materials are “designed in such a way that they can be reused, remanufactured, recycled or recovered and thus maintained in the economy for as long as possible”.
In this scenario, fewer resources would be needed, less waste would be produced and, perhaps most importantly, the greenhouse gas emissions which are driving the climate crisis, would be prevented or reduced.
This goes much further than simply recycling: for the circular economy to happen, the dominant economic model of “planned obsolescence” (buying, discarding and replacing products on a frequent basis) would have to be upended, businesses and consumers would need to value raw materials, from glass to metal to plastics and fibres, as resources to be valued, and products as things to be maintained and repaired, before they are replaced.
3) Turn trash into cash
Increasingly, in both the developed and the developing world, consumers are embracing the ideas behind the circular economy, and companies are realising that they can make money from it. “Making our economies circular offers a lifeline to decarbonise our economies”, says Olga Algayerova, the head of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, (UNECE), “and could lead to the creation of 1.8 million net jobs by 2040”.
In the US, for example, a demand for affordable, high-quality furniture, in a country where some 15 million tonnes of discarded furniture ends up in landfill every year, was the spur for the creation of Kaiyo, an online marketplace that makes it easier for furniture to be repaired and reused. The company is growing fast, and is part of a trend in the country towards a more effective use of resources, such as the car-sharing app Zipcar, and Rent the Runway, a rental service for designer clothing.
In Africa, there are many projects, large and small, which incorporate the principles of the circular economy by using existing resources in the most efficient way possible. One standout initiative is Gjenge Makers in Kenya. The company sells bricks for the construction industry, made entirely from waste. The young founder, Nzambi Matee, who has been awarded a UN Champion of the Earth award, says that she is literally turning trash into cash. The biggest problem she faces is how to keep up with demand: every day Gjenge Makers recycles some 500 kilos of waste, and can produces up to 1,500 plastic bricks every day.
4) Governments are beginning to step up
But, for the transition to take hold, governments need to be involved. Recently, major commitments have been made in some of the countries and regions responsible for significant resources use and waste.
The US Government’s American Jobs Plan, for example, includes measures to retrofit energy-efficient homes, electrify the federal fleet of vehicles, including postal vans, and ending carbon pollution from power generation by 2035.
In the European Union, the EU’s new circular economy action plan, adopted in 2020, is one of the building blocks of the ambitious European Green Deal, which aims at making Europe the first climate-neutral continent.
And, in Africa, Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa founded the African Circular Economy Alliance, which calls for the widespread adoption of the circular economy on the continent. The Alliance supports African leaders who champion the idea, and creates coalitions to implement pilot projects.
5) Squaring the circle?
However, there is still a long way to and there is even evidence that the world is going backwards: the 2021 Circularity Gap Report, produced annually by the Circle Economy thinktank, estimates that the global circularity rate (the proportion of recovered materials, as a percentage of overall materials used) stands at only 8.6 per cent, down from 9.1 per cent in 2018
So how can the world be made “rounder”? There are no easy answers, and no silver bullet, but Ms. Algayerova points to strong regulation as a big piece of the puzzle.
“I am proud that for the automotive sector, a UN regulation adopted at UNECE in 2013 requires 85 per cent of new vehicles’ mass to be reusable or recyclable. This binding regulation influences the design of around one quarter of all vehicles sold globally, some 23 million in 2019.”
“It’s a step in the right direction, but these kind of approaches need to be massively scaled up across all sectors”, she adds. “Shifting to the circular economy is good for business, citizens and nature, and must be at the heart of a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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