One fine day
We understood a long time ago, already around the year 2022, that we could not continue the way lived; We woke up.
Our current economy is based on the balanced use of the natural resources of the planet. The report Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome in 1972, revealed truths that made us think. Yet it took another 50 years for the information to sink in, which meant 50 more years of pursuing an economic model based on overusing natural resources.
The year 2022 constituted the beginning of carbon neutral circular economy as the 'new normal'. The game was up for linear economy. In hindsight, it is easy to say that we could have done this transition earlier. Nevertheless, the reason we finally understood how serious the situation was might have been unwanted chains of events, including extreme heat waves, forest fires, floods and the recurrence of weather warnings all over the world.
In many ways, the year 2022 was a watershed between two eras. In addition to the sustainability crisis, we understood how vulnerable our current economy was – with overdependence on imported materials and goods, lack of many raw materials and water shortages. We reached the limit of growth built on ruthlessly exploiting natural resources.
Back in the early 2020s, 90% of biodiversity loss was caused by natural resource usage, around 40% of CO2 emissions came from processing materials, and we recycled only around 10% of materials.
When we accepted the reality that the impact of human behaviour, industry activities and urbanisation was affecting the capability of living in some parts of the planet, only then did we begin to develop a new kind of economy and implement processes and measures in every sector of our society.
Money was one of the most important drivers for the transition towards a carbon neutral circular economy. Successful business activities in trade, supply chains and industrial value creation chains were, and still are, a global tool for change in society.
Adopting business practices based on circular economy solutions opened a wide range of opportunities for companies, for example, via industrial symbiosis, eco-industrial parks, product design, improving material efficiency, different maintenance services or circular economy business models, such as selling products as a service. Companies that promoted circular economy solutions also improved their financial performance.
A new day is rising in a coastal city somewhere on planet Earth. The birds are singing at dawn. The fishermen come from the sea and distribute their haul to production facilities, where the catch is utilised 100%.
Carbon neutral cargo vessels and passenger ships arrive and leave the port in good order. Materials flow in an automated way. Waiting times at sea no longer exist. Maritime transport as a whole has decreased significantly over the past few years as we have cut down consumption and industrial production has been returned to areas in the local vicinity. The vessels are carbon neutral, and their life cycles are under control from the beginning to the end – vessels have a long lifespan, benefitting from maintenance services. Recycled materials are used, and materials will be recycled to a new life cycle after the first use. The same procedure applies to all products.
Land transports from the port are mainly carried out by rail. When the harbour was in its construction phase, by-products from a steel mill in the vicinity were used as the raw material for concrete. Global value creation chains have widely adopted circular economy business models. Products and materials as a service are already considered a normal business.
Different service platforms are in use around the world. Digitalisation plays a significant role in enabling sustainability, and it is designed to be sustainable itself as well. Data and digital solutions are used wisely – only where necessary and where they are the best or only solution.
Industrial enterprises and plants are located outside the city in eco-industrial parks, where companies can collaborate. The cooperation includes buying services and educating employees together, as well as buying and selling industrial residues and creating new kinds of businesses. Smooth and flexible permit processes have sped up development.
Agreements, contracts and procurement procedures include sustainability indicators. All the funding and financing is based on sustainability assessments. Natural resources can be used only if the recycled feedstock is not available. If virgin raw materials are used instead, they must be guaranteed to remain in use beyond the first use.
The smart-city model is based on sustainability in every phase and each part, including infrastructure. An urban planner has designed the built environment, so that car traffic is mainly outside residential areas. Modular solutions and recycled materials are used in buildings, products and components.
Energy systems are built similarly – recycled materials are used in the infrastructure. There is enough renewable energy produced to meet society's needs. However, at the same time, it has been understood that energy is not an inexhaustible resource because implementing infrastructure requires valuable natural mineral resources where demand exceeds supply.
New knowledge and new skills
The key to successful change was to increase the level of circular economy competence in every sector of society and every part of the industrial value net. In the past, around 2022, an important shift occurred when we all found our roles in the transition towards a sustainable society. Education from primary schools to academia played a significant role. There were dozens of courses where professionals from different fields could learn more about circular economy. We all found out how to rethink and redesign our everyday lives.
The players - private companies, public organisations, the education sector, trade, transport and services - are at the heart of the concrete implementation of change. In addition, enablers such as funding organisations, research institutes and permit authorities play a crucial role in carbon neutral circular economy society.
Circular economy is a change in mindset and practical actions. Its implementation requires, in addition to education, new business models, policy instruments, data, indicators and new kinds of management.
When the school bell rings and the children's school day ends, the parents' turn starts. Continuous learning is part of our everyday life. Looking back, we can only wonder about the old habits when it was normal to use energy and raw materials endlessly as if there were no limits.
We all have a role
The sustainable lifestyle is now visible everywhere. We plant crops in our parks, produce energy on rooftops and use industrial by-products efficiently. We ride bikes, walk and use public transport and carpooling as part of the new normal. Single-use packaging in the retail sector is mostly history. Only for health and safety reasons and if the packaging increases the product's lifespan, such as in the food chain, single-use packaging may still be used. Also, in this case, all materials are recycled. There is a return system for different packaging materials. The financial sector is actively investing in and funding sustainable solutions.
A teacher, an engineer, a police officer, a material scientist, a warehouse worker and a gardener enthusiastically discuss how air transport emissions have been significantly reduced again. It is not just about technology – engines and fuels – but equally about choices made and behavioural changes impacting, for example, driving speeds, air flows and fulfilment rates that allow for a continuous reduction in transport emissions.
An architect, a material developer, a real estate owner, a product designer and an end-user work with great zeal. They will design and build a house using only second-hand materials and products sourced from urban mining in the neighbourhood.
In addition, there will be a roof garden, where half of the surface will serve as a meadow for pollinators, and the rest will be used for growing crops. The local food store will be interested in buying herbs from the housing company.
The giant leap was taken when we noticed that no sector could make the transition by itself. We need cross-sectoral collaboration between organisations, professionals and the private and public sectors. We began to focus more on collaboration towards a mutually beneficial goal than competing with each other.
A carbon neutral circular economy is a fair economy. The entire value chain is responsible for production. In the new global economy, outsourcing waste and pollution is no longer possible.
It is necessary to add "to dos" to our calendars – the sustainable future will be made today, and we need to make it! There is still a need for new solutions, technical development, new business models, fair trade, energy reserves, new kinds of skills, competences and collaborations. The world continually evolves.
Happiness and welfare are no longer based on material capital but rather on intellectual and social capital. Actually, it is hard even to remember why consumption played such a significant role in our lives in the past.
The present global economy is carbon neutral, natural resources are used in line with the planet's limitations, and the economy is based on circular business models. Business is running, and people still travel; we have food, health and a roof over our heads. We learned our lesson, and when we found new ways to share existing resources fairly, we discovered a new kind of good that we had forgotten.
The transition towards sustainability and a carbon neutral circular economy meant a systemic change in society. We needed to make changes at every level and sector of society, from strategies to operations. The systemic change, often called a paradigm shift, was comprehensive and required rethinking and changing almost everything. The systemic change required must address many aspects of the problem at the same time.
In reality, we do not yet live in a circular economy. Ask yourself:
- What does a carbon neutral circular economy mean to you and your sector?
- What targets do you set yourself?
- With which actions do you achieve the set targets?
This article was written by Nani Pajunen.