Where will the Circular Economy drive Europe and the world?

Our researchers regularly meet and interact with policymakers, not only in New York and Geneva at UN level but also in Brussels for EU events. In March 2019, Maria Tomai joined an event on the Circular Economy, where she was able to brief EU policymakers on the work done at UNU-MERIT, particularly the SITE4Societyinitiative.


The Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference, led by the European Commission and European Economic and Social Committee, gathers researchers and policymakers every year to discuss the state of play of the eponymous Action Plan, including major trends and transitional policy options for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

‘’Europe is leading the way, and the world is watching us!’’ was the double-edged opening remark by Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, which highlighted not only EU capacities but also how people worldwide are increasingly demanding changes to how our societies are run.

Not just an environmental story

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the EU’s Action Plan could save firms up to 600 billion euros every year while creating 3 million new jobs by 2030. Indeed, various discussions over the two days stressed how plans for the Circular Economy reach much further than simple environmental issues. It is also a competitive, industrial and social agenda for Europe, offering fertile ground for innovation to flourish and new business models to arise.

The Circular Economy may also be the answer to seemingly unavoidable trade-offs between various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which see, on the one hand, mostly human needs stressed in Goals 1 to 6 and mainly environmental needs highlighted in Goals 13 to 15.

What’s next for Europe?

One recurring theme was: ‘How exactly can Europe build on its present capabilities to manage this transition?’ Fortunately, this conference brought a wealth of new and convincing ideas, including the following:

  1. Invest more in R&D while ensuring fairness and solidarity between EU Member States, as some may struggle to act alone.
  2. Change the financing dynamics. The ‘Taxonomy’ proposal contributes to these goals, by establishing a common language for sustainable finance and classifying the economic activities considered environmentally sustainable for investment purposes.
  3. Keep consumers informed, empowered and protected — because the choices made by millions of consumers can very much support or hinder the circular economy. Open science is a critical tool to facilitate this, by keeping our scientific research openly available to society.


Speaking truth with policymakers

As part of our efforts to bridge academia and civil society by speaking with various stakeholders, this trip enabled me to gather views at the highest of levels.

The EU’s Circular Economy mission in Africa was the main topic of my discussion with Mrs Astrid Ladefoged, Head of Unit, SDGs, Green Finance & Economic Analysis at the Directorate-General for Environment. These missions seek to ramp up cooperation between the EU and developing countries, especially in terms of promoting green solutions — work that dovetails with our ongoing research and training in Ghana on urban sustainability. Mrs Ladefoged welcomed this information and stressed how the Circular Economy is very much a joint endeavour covering environmental, social and economic issues.

Then Mr Robert Schröder, Member of Cabinet of Commissioner Moedas, European Commissioner for Science, Research and Innovation, gave me his views on ‘Horizon Europe’ — the next research and innovation framework programme that will succeed Horizon 2020. Championing innovation-led growth, he explained how Horizon Europe will take a mission-oriented policy approach, targeting funds at clearly defined targets. In this context, he welcomed a brief summary of our work on SITE4Society, which he said could help increase citizen participation in setting the missions and work programmes of this new framework.

Next, a personal meeting with Mr Dimitrios Papadimoulis, Greek politician and Vice President of the European Parliament, was the perfect moment to talk about opportunities for certain countries to catch up on the common EU targets laid out in the EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy. Mr Papadimoulis sees the Circular Economy mission as a roadmap for not only catching up, but also leap-frogging towards sustainability. He called it a vehicle for growth, especially for countries that are currently lagging behind.

At the end of each interview, I asked ‘How can economists and researchers help you achieve your goals?’ The answers can be summarised as follows: First, economists should find a way to measure the costs of inaction towards circularity as well as the cost of damage caused by current production and consumption patterns. Second, climate policy and the required tax reforms are raising question of fairness, so there should be a clear role to play for distributional economics. Finally, the involvement of citizens, although widely recognised, needs further exploration in terms of how people can be nudged in a more sustainable direction — or indeed how they en masse can nudge policymakers to take more sustainable action.

Media Credits: Flickr / C.Barrette; EC