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  • Ellen Taylor

COP26: A Cop-Out on Circularity

At one minute past midnight on Monday 1st, November, the refuse collectors and street cleaners of Glasgow walked out on strike. The strike lasted for just over a week – coinciding with COP26 – and it wasn’t long before its effects started to show. Bins around the city center began to overflow. Discarded face masks and food packets floated serenely down the River Clyde. It wasn’t just autumn leaves that swirled in the sharp November wind, but plastic bags and bottles too.

Slowly but surely, the city of Glasgow was made acutely aware of its own waste. Yet, even as waste became a major topic for the city itself, waste and resource management remained distinctly absent on the COP26 agenda. The themes of each day’s events listed in the presidency programme were varied, ranging from nature to cities, and from finance to public empowerment. They were themes that certainly touched upon the subject of resource management – but they left little space for its consideration as a topic in its own right.

Waste piled high in Glasgow City Centre after a week of strikes

There were four goals listed on the COP26 website. The first almost goes without saying – to ‘Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach’. The site goes on to list four things countries will need to do in order to deliver on the goal: phasing out coal, stopping deforestation, switching to electric vehicles, and investing in renewable energy. To varying degrees of success, all of these four goals were addressed in the agreements and commitments emerging from COP26.

A number of countries, including Brazil, committed to end deforestation by 2030. The Breakthrough Agenda was launched to accelerate a global transition to renewable energy and zero emission vehicles. More than 40 countries pledged to quit coal, though the pledge did not include some of the world’s most coal-dependent countries, such as the USA and Australia. And notoriously, the substitution of one small word at the eleventh hour led to widespread disappointment about the final draft of the Glasgow climate pact, as the commitment to ‘phasing out’ coal was watered down to ‘phasing down’.

Yet perhaps transforming the way we manage our waste and resources ought to have been a fifth addition to this to-do list for net zero. Indeed, the omission of this topic came at the dismay of many in the industry – the president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, Dr Adam Read, described it as a ‘critical oversight’. Representatives from the IT sector, who in the run up to COP26 highlighted the problem of e-waste and called for its inclusion in the agenda, will no doubt also be disappointed. Their concerns are well warranted – according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the way we make, use, and dispose of materials and resources, including food, contributes 45% of global emissions. In Circle Economy’s 2021 Circularity Gap Report, they find that adopting circular economy strategies could cut global emissions by 39%.

However, there is a long way to go when it comes to achieving this target. It would require a holistic and comprehensive approach, addressing all aspects of our current system from designing out waste during the development stage of product life cycles, to reconstructing ideas of ownership to pave the way for new product-as-a-service models. On top of this, the discussion around circularity remains relatively underdeveloped as compared to that surrounding the energy transition (for example, the degree to which circularity is embraced in each country’s NDCs varies greatly, with the focus in most cases being overwhelmingly on energy). Thus, though rethinking the way we relate to our resources could go a long way towards meeting the goals of COP26, much work needs to be done before it can do so – all the more reason for it to have played a more prominent role in the COP26 agenda.

This is not to say that the circular economy has been totally absent from Glasgow this November. Commitments such as the deforestation pledge of course touch upon resource management, and the Breakthrough Agenda includes a number of aims pertaining to developing more sustainable industry – even if they neglect the explicit mention of circularity.

In addition, a number of side events hosted by various parties tackled themes of waste and circularity. As for the official COP26 events – when visiting the Green Zone, the public exhibition held on the riverbank opposite the Blue Zone (where the negotiations take place), one walked past an art installation by Itamar Gilboa. The installation highlighted the 117kg of food waste produced by the average British family every six months and encouraged onlookers to be mindful of their food waste. At the stand curated by Arup and C40 Cities, asking representatives about circularity initiatives in the cities prompted them to share how they had incorporated circularity principles in the design of the stand itself – their videos were projected onto a wall made of mycelium, part of the root system of fungi. The promising biomaterial is grown on waste from the agricultural industry and has great potential for use as sound-proofing or insulation. And in the second week of COP, the Ellen McArthur Foundation hosted an event in the Green Zone on how the circular economy can tackle climate change. But, overall, the degree to which the topic managed to crossed over the River Clyde to earn a place at the table in the Blue Zone negotiations – much criticized this year for their exclusivity and impenetrability – was limited.

By last Sunday, COP26 had ended, and the final agreement was predictably dominated by themes more well-established than that of circularity in resource management. The world looked anxiously to Glasgow and began hasty analyses of whether, based on the Glasgow Climate Pact, 1.5 was still alive – and of whether the signatories were likely to stick to their promises.

By Sunday too, the street cleaners and refuse collectors of Glasgow had ended their strike, and managed to clear away the discarded banners from the climate march, the pamphlets advertising past side events, all the debris left behind as the world descended on their city and promptly left. Though the issue of waste faded quietly from prominence for the city itself, it is important that, for the global climate regime, recognition of resource management as a way through which to meet climate goals only continues to grow.


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