In just a few short months this year, world leaders will assemble at two landmark conferences to hammer out solutions to the two biggest environmental challenges facing the planet. The COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Kunming in October will be the first since the 2010 Aichi summit which agreed 20 biodiversity targets (none of which have been delivered). Hot on its heels, the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow in November will be the first major coming together of nations since the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Biodiversity will be on the agenda at the Glasgow climate summit too as it is now widely accepted that these crises are intricately linked. Steps to address one will reinforce the actions taken on the other. This recognition is undoubtedly positive, but there is a major factor missing that links the two. The impacts of our resource use on the planet is given remarkably little attention, when it should be at the centre of discussions.
Action on climate and nature must include how we use resources
Overconsumption and mishandling of resources, from forests to fossil fuels and all the other many materials we extract from the earth to support our economy, are right at the root of both of these seemingly intractable problems. The UN has documented that extracting and processing resources is causing half of the world’s carbon emissions and is responsible for 90 per cent of biodiversity loss. The UK is using renewable resources at a rate three times faster than the planet can sustainably supply. So it can’t be an overstatement to suggest that sorting out our approach to resources will go a very long way to sorting out serious climate and biodiversity challenges.
A big reason why governments around the world haven’t already made this obvious link is that unnecessary resource use, and the waste it leads to, are hardwired into the economy. The linear economy, otherwise known as throwaway society, is now deeply embedded in the way we think and operate. This is the consequence of failing to take into account the full cost to the planet, and to future generations. Resources are often too cheap, but this failure to account properly will cost us dear.
If it’s so obvious, what’s holding us back?
Our government, as elsewhere in the world, knows this is a problem and promised to address it in England’s 2018 resources and waste strategy. But its efforts so far have been distinctly underwhelming, usually targeting individual contentious products in a scattered, piecemeal fashion. Plastic straws and single use carrier bags cause environmental issues – and should be addressed –but are symptoms, not the root of the problem.
This approach will never lead to the resource efficient, circular economy we need to address runaway climate change and the wholesale destruction of nature. It fundamentally fails to address the systemic reasons that drive businesses and individuals to overconsume, leading to products, both single use and potentially endlessly reusable, ending up as useless waste. That, in turn, leads to more and more extraction.
What is missing is a guiding vision of where we want to get to. The government’s aspirations are far too vague, simply to be “more circular” without a definition of what that means or a route to achieve it. The targets that do exist are often voluntary and none aim to reduce our resource use overall. The closest the government has come is an intention, through the Environment Bill, to set targets to reduce residual waste going to landfill or incineration and improve resource productivity. But neither of these will cut resource use outright, let alone keep it in line with planetary boundaries.
Time to replicate the success of the UK approach to net zero
But the UK has proved it can take on a system wide challenge successfully with its genuinely world leading approach to cutting carbon emissions, particularly through the rigorous target setting and review process. This is based on a vision of where the country needs to be: net zero emissions by 2050, with a robust process to get there. It is supported by independent scientific advice from the Committee on Climate Change, which sets five-yearly budgets and makes recommendations for specific sectors, keeping progress on track and identifying the remedies when it is not.
To reach a circular economy we need a similar overarching target to cut resource use. This would focus attention not only on products and particular waste streams, but also on the incentives, behaviours, business models and infrastructure needed for better resource management.
Businesses need near term certainty and a stable policy environment to move to more circular business models and benefit from the cost savings of greater resource efficiency, especially as they recover from the impacts of the pandemic. This is where a target would help, supported by a clear economy wide plan, with binding interim goals and sector and material specific plans.
Ahead of this year’s summits, the UK has a chance, some would say an obligation, to continue to shape global approaches. Given all we know about the devastating impacts of overconsumption for climate and nature, this leadership should include a pledge to cut resource consumption in line with planetary boundaries. The evidence suggests this target should be to ensure resource use halves.
Wales has already pledged to develop a target for ‘one planet resource use’ for 2050, and MEPs have called on the European Commission to implement binding targets for material reduction. These moves suggest time is of the essence if the UK wants get a head start on the economy of the future and establish a global leadership role.