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Why Renewable Energy Isn’t Enough of a Change To Meet Climate Goals

Renewable energy remains a core component in the drive to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, but solely relying on it will only get us halfway to our destination. Implementing and actively practicing circular economy principles is needed to realize our climate targets fully.

November 26, 2019

UPDATED: Statistics in the article were updated on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

For years, renewable energy has been viewed as the key to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Early industry pioneers held onto hope for nearly 40 years before their seeds — a scattering of wind and solar projects — started to take root and spread worldwide. Renewable energy capacity has quadrupled worldwide in the past ten years and now makes up more than two-thirds of global energy production, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency in its annual  Renewable Capacity Statistics 2020

While these gains are important to reaching decarbonization goals, people often overlook that renewables make up less than 10% of the energy needed for heating and cooling and only 3.3% of transportation energy. Cities are moving to electric bus fleets and alternatives other than petroleum-based are being developed for comfort, but it’s still not fast enough. Even if we were to convert to 100% renewable energy, the change alone would not be enough, said the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in its publication Completing the Picture:  How the Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change.

The September 2019 paper, released in collaboration with Material Economics, asserted that the global shift to renewable energy addresses only 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To reduce the remaining 45%, we need the circular economy to meet our goals.

The paper projected that if we applied circular economy strategies to five materials — aluminum, cement, food, plastic and steel — the total greenhouse gas production would decrease by 9.3 billion tons worldwide in 2050. But, is their framework realistic in global culture?

A transformative journey

The concept of a circular economy is not new, and many businesses are already implementing its principles into their operations, processes, designs and culture.

Vestas designs it wind turbines with recycling in mind. When the turbine reaches its end of life, the company recovers around 83-89% of materials and components for future use. Additionally, the company developed advanced repair services to retain the maximum value of materials from an environmental and circular economic perspective.

Leadership at BASF’s Huntsville, Alabama plant challenged its employees in 2016 to reduce their environmental footprint. They created a Zero Waste to Landfill team to analyze the facility’s material and energy as they sought to connect the dots between waste generation and waste disposal. Less than 0.2% of waste went to landfill in 2018. Furthermore, the facility reduced its general trash disposal by 40 tons, increased recycling by 71 tons and reused 81 tons of waste.

In Chile, the nonprofit group PROHumana has promoted sustainability as a central tenet to more than 440 organizations. Their work has influenced how businesses in the area address sustainability with their suppliers, customers and the greater community.

GEM China, an urban mining and resource management business, is known for recycling at scale. The company processes around 300,000 tons of battery waste per year by recycling scrapped lithium batteries from electric vehicles. GEM extracts nickel, cobalt and other important resources and prepares the materials for (re)use in battery energy storage systems.

Finally, as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report pointed out, our food system can be transformed through regenerative agriculture farming and grazing practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. Traditional farming methods such as planting cover crops and crop rotation are one part of this new movement.

Perfect harmony

Renewable energy remains a core component in the drive to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, but relying on it solely will only get us halfway to our destination. Implementing and actively practicing the circular economy principles can take us home, assuming the home is where we ultimately achieve our climate targets.

But everyone has a role, including businesses, governments, nonprofits and consumers. Now, let’s get started.

About the author

Catherine Sheehy is the global lead of sustainability partnerships for UL. She and her team manage a range of projects covering zero waste and circularity, greener product frameworks, and carbon optimization strategies.

Sheehy was a key author of the UL 880 Standard for Sustainability for Manufacturing Companies, which addresses vital enterprise-level sustainable supply chain issues.