Completing the picture: how the circular economy tackles climate change

This paper argues that putting in place a circular economy is a fundamental step towards achieving climate targets.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019)


A step-change is needed to put the world on track to achieve zero emissions by 2050 to meet the 1.5˚C target set out in the Paris Agreement, and even if this target is met, costs to the global economy relating to climate change are projected to reach USD 54 trillion by 2100 and rise steeply with every further temperature increase.

This paper argues that putting in place a circular economy is a fundamental step towards achieving climate targets. It holds that this shift would move us beyond efforts to minimise emissions in our extractive linear system, and offers a systematic response to the crisis by both reducing emissions and increasing resilience to its effects. It would also help in meeting other goals such as creating more liveable cities, distributing value more widely in the economy, and spurring innovation.

The greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are a product of our extractive economy, which relies on fossil fuels and does not manage resources for the long-term.

To date, efforts to tackle the crisis have focused on a transition to renewable energy and a focus on increased energy efficiency. Though crucial, these measures can only address 55% of emissions. The remaining 45% comes from producing the cars, clothes, food, and other products we use every day. The circular economy can contribute to completing the picture of emissions reduction by transforming the way we make and use products. The paper demonstrates how applying circular economy strategies in five key areas (cement, aluminium, steel, plastics, and food) could help reduce emissions by 40% in 2050. This would be equivalent to cutting current emissions from all transport to zero.

In industry, this transformation can be achieved by substantially increasing the use rates of assets, such as buildings and vehicles, and recycling the materials used to make them. This reduces the demand for virgin steel, aluminium, cement, and plastics, and the emissions associated with their production. In the food system, using regenerative agriculture practices and designing out waste along the whole value chain could reduce carbon in the soil and avoid emissions related to uneaten food and unused by-products.

As well as tackling both the causes and effects of climate change, the circular economy can help meet other UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as SDG12 (responsible consumption and production). It has been shown that the circular economy framework can improve air quality, reduce water contamination, and protect biodiversity.

These attributes make a compelling case for seeing the circular economy not just as one option to consider in the quest to meet climate targets, but as a powerful solutions framework for a prosperous future.

The paper recommends that international institutions put the circular economy on the climate agenda, and give it the prominence afforded other important emissions-reduction activities, and suggests that governments and cities weave circular economy principles into their climate strategies.