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The role of cities in the transition towards a circular economy

Industries and governments are starting to transition towards a circular economy, and cities play a key role in making this transition possible. Cities are a major contributor to the climate emergency: globally, our cities consume 75% of the world’s natural resources and produce 50% of solid waste as well as 80% of GHG emissions.

Yet at the same time, cities hold a valuable concentration of financial and social resources, and are prime places to implement and demonstrate innovative circular solutions. While cities hold immense opportunity for advancing a circular economy, the need for action across a complex range of city systems poses a major challenge for policymakers and city stakeholders.

The Universal Circular Economy Policy Goals

Policymakers have a unique opportunity to accelerate the industrial transformations needed to scale the circular economy. The Universal Circular Economy Policy Goals (UCEPGs), developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, set out a framework for cities, governments and businesses that align ambition and create a common direction of travel towards a more circular economy. Applicable across sectors and local contexts, they can - taken together - help create an economy that is resilient, inclusive and regenerative. The UCEPGs act as a ‘blueprint for co-operation’. As the transition to the circular economy accelerates and intensifies, these common goals aim to reduce fragmentation and complexity, and take into account the global nature of production and consumption systems.

Ellen mac arthur and arup circular economy principles Ellen mac arthur and arup circular economy principles

Emerging research into circular economy policy in cities

As part of Arup and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s strategic partnership, investigations into the implementation of city policy are being initiated within New York, London and the European Union region. The UCEPGs are being used as a valuable framework to understand how cities and city stakeholders are transitioning to a circular economy, whilst recognising their varied contexts. This work focuses on real estate and a general view of the built environment was taken, since activities in this sector account for 37% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when upstream power generation is included. More examples of policy application need to be shared widely so city stakeholders such as policymakers and developers can start to make a collective shift together and move from ambition into action. This research aimed to address this need, and builds on previous work undertaken by Arup and EMF exploring what circular economy policy looks like for cities

This article reflects our initial findings of this research and how circular economy policy can be implemented, to enhance sustainability and prosperity.

Circular economy city policy in relation to the Universal Circular Economy Policy Goals

1. Stimulate design for the circular economy

To eliminate waste and pollution in our urban systems, we need to build in circular economy principles from the very start of the design process. Increasingly in the built environment, design for deconstruction is being specified in city policy as the importance of embodied carbon saving is slowly recognised. In all three study areas, this Goal was relatively mature. For example, in Europe the New European Bauhaus connects the European Green Deal to living spaces with an objective to make them beautiful, sustainable and inclusive. It is a platform that combines sustainability with design to stimulate a wave of creative, sustainable projects. The London Plan provides detail into how building development should be undertaken in regard to circular economy principles by including a world-first requirement for large-scale developments to complete a Circular Economy Statement during planning. It advises building in layers to promote disassembly. City developers such as Grosvenor Property are working with this ambition to move into action through projects such as the Material Reuse Innovation Project. In New York, Zero Waste Design Guidelines specifically call for circular economy approaches: designing for material optimization; material selection; waste management planning on-site; and considerations during design.

2. Manage resources to preserve value

To keep products and materials in the economy at their highest possible value in cities, circular business models and resource management systems are required. Several cities, including New York and London, have targets to achieve zero waste to landfill within the decade. In addition, national strategies such as Our Waste, Our Resource: A Strategy for England has the goal of transitioning the country towards a circular economy that keeps resources in use longer and at their highest possible value. The policy landscape between city and nation needs to be aligned to strengthen activity and this ties closely into Goal 5, ‘Collaborate for Systems Change’. The EU launched the Circular Economy Action Plan aiming to ensure that waste is prevented. The action plan established concrete and ambitious actions, with measures covering the whole life cycle: from production and consumption to waste management. It also includes specific initiatives for the construction industry such as ‘Address the sustainability of construction products through the Construction Product Regulation revision, potentially including introduction of recycled content requirements’ and ‘Consider a revision of material recovery targets for construction and demolition waste’.

3. Make the economics work

The circular economy presents a significant economic opportunity. Cities can stimulate demand through procurement policies, to leverage their large purchasing power: creating economies of scale, facilitating initial market entry, and sending signals to private sector companies. The London Plan specifically addresses this goal in “GG5: Growing a Good Economy”. This aims to conserve and enhance London’s global economic competitiveness and ensure that economic success is shared amongst all Londoners, those involved in planning and development must recognise and promote the benefits of a transition to a low carbon circular economy to strengthen London’s economic success. The European Union is advanced in this goal area. With EU launching the Strategy for financing the transition to a sustainable economy in 2021 - based on the action plan from 2018 - they launched a variation of drivers such as the EU Taxonomy, Green Bonds and more. 

4. Invest in innovation, infrastructure and skills

Focus on public finance capabilities to invest in circular economy opportunities, skills and mobilise investment in cities is needed. New York City is engaged in multiple partnerships with private sector entities and academic institutions to advance research and innovation in the circular economy, such as the Circular City Studio created by New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), New Lab, and local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to support piloting of products and services that advance circularity. It provides innovative companies with “test beds” or “sandboxes” to test out emerging technologies and approaches and works as a catalyst to attract further venture funding. Within Europe, from 2016 to 2020, the European Investment Bank provided €2.7 billion to co-finance circular economy projects in a variety of sectors, with the goal of investing at least €10 billion in the circular economy by 2023 to accelerate transition. In London, Re.London operates business support. It was established to support SMEs in the transition to a circular economy by offering business advisory services and investment guidance. Support has been provided to organisations such as BioHM, a start-up exploring how bio-based materials such as mycelium fungus and food waste can be used to create new, circular construction materials for commercial buildings and domestic homes. They also have a skills programme, The Academy, which aims to help local authorities develop their circular economy capabilities. They offer 60 minute webinars for leaders in UK authorities in addition to further practical sessions. 

5. Collaborate for systems change

Fostering of responsive public-private collaboration across value chains to remove barriers, develop new policies, and align existing ones is crucial to the creation of a circular city. Work across government departments, nationally and internationally is required to build policy alignment and durable change. Both London (The London Plan) and New York (OneNYC plan) have notable circular economy references in mayoral strategies. This is significant as they drive the mayoral agenda and inform the direction and activities of City agencies—helping to mainstream circular economy principles and raise general awareness.

What is needed now?

The UCEPGs provide a powerful lens through which to examine policy. And, while cities can generate policy and strategies to drive systems change, there is also reliance on national governments to set the direction and pull policy levers in order to incentivise the adoption of circular economy principles in real terms. It is vital that policy supports and strengthens a just transition to a circular economy and connects city communities. 

In addition to local communities, cities must align to national and global drivers explicitly in recognition of the wider urban ecosystem that they are placed within. The European Union region is a good, albeit unique, example of the scale of collaboration required across supply chains, across both the public and private sectors, as well as beyond the city and national boundaries. Cities such as New York are increasingly advancing circularity in building projects that the public sector directly controls (such as municipal buildings) which is an important starting point for the circular economy transition within cities. Our next piece will follow on from this to share more on the challenges experienced by cities and what is needed to overcome them.