CHALLENGING TIMES AHEAD: CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR SOCIO-ECONOMIC RESILIENCE

Prof. Dr. Peter Heck Managing Director – IfaS
Prof. Dr. Peter Heck
Managing Director – IfaS

Anthropocene. Certainly, this is an interesting time we live in. Dominated and shaped by us, the Homo sapiens, this epoch has no short supply of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The ‘good’ —quality of life, education for all, increasing income, ever increasing GDPs, etc.— keeps us in shape to chase all the ambitious goals we have set as an intelligent species that span from curing death to terraforming Mars. Whereas, the bad and the ugly such as the wars, environmental pollution/destruction, global climate change, pandemics, etc. are rife and severely threaten the very existence of us on earth. Reluctantly acknowledged truth about the latter—i.e. the bad and the ugly—is that they are the direct consequences of the former—the good, in particular, the insatiable growth we chase. Underlying economic strategy for growth—the linear economic model—is largely blamed to that end. Take, make, and dispose have been our mantra over the last couple of centuries that works on the assumption of an infinite supply of resource on earth. However, on the contrary, the complex Earth System has limits. Evidently, the current trend is based on false assumptions. This trend of growth cannot be sustained, and it is destined to be doomed.

Through the high-impact socioeconomic and geopolitical challenges during the recent decades (dotcom bust, oil glut, Lehman shock, the Arab Spring, the Syrian refugee crisis, etc. included), one thing we have learned for certain is that our existing linear economic model, depended upon globalization at large, is flawed to the core. Comprehensibly, it is not going to deliver us to a sustainable future despite experts’ forecasts. The sapience of sapiens seems questionable given the level of complacency and the recalcitrance to learning from our recent majestic mistakes. More alarming is  our approach to resolution; resolve by deus ex machina.

An unpleasant wakeup call to our complacent slumber is the Covid-19 pandemic. It came from left-field, and took us by surprise. Through SARS, MERS, Ebola and the like, we had the opportunity to learn, adapt and be prepared. But we missed the opportunity, largely. Social and economic repercussions of pandemics were predicted, but ignored. Now, the globalization we depend upon dearly has become a burden and the global linear economy is at the verge of melting down, once more.

Covid-19, for sure, will go away. Yet, there will be many more pandemics waiting to emerge, and heading our way. However, through experience, we could infer that it is not all doom and gloom. There are invaluable lessons to be learned. The lesson here for us entirely lies in Coronomics[1] (or better still; Pandenomics!). That is, to build resilient and robust local/regional economies that can withstand shocks to the social and economic systems. Economies those that are built upon the fundaments of biological systems such as the Circular Economy [CE] and Bio-based Economy [BE] where regionally available renewable resources—such as energy, material, and human resources—are employed seem to buffer these shocks well and have higher resilience with minimal latency. These economies also have multiple redundancies, as a result, risks can be hedged with relative ease and speed.

For nearly two-thirds of a human generation, my team and I at the Institute for Applied Material Flow management [IfaS] have been at the forefront engaged in the implementation and the dissemination of practical knowledge of Circular Economy [CE] around the world.

At the turn of the century, when the ideology of Circular Economy was still embryonic and nebulous, my team and I ventured into this novel field not by accident but by clear deliberation as we saw the tremendous potential of CE as a versatile economic model that could treat the intensifying societal metabolic disorder. With the foresight and vision combined with the passion, we tested the waters of sustainability by implementing Zero Emission [ZE] technologies and strategies—the foundation of CE, first at our home-base; the Environmental Campus Birkenfeld [ECB]. Subsequently, in keeping with the growing demand, we had to expand our boundaries to local, regional and global levels in a very short time. Towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century we realised that there is a dearth and need in practical knowledge and also a forum to share the breakthroughs in the CE frontier. Out of this need, we created the International Circular Economy Week & Conference [ICEW&C] in 2009 as a specialised platform to disseminate practical knowledge in ZE towards achieving CE.

As you may be aware, Germany is the strongest economy in Europe and the 4th largest in the world. Part of this success owes to Germany’s stern policies on sustainable economic development, in which the Circular Economy policy is an integral part. Committed to Sustainable Development, the German economy has progressed by leaps and bounds over the years by adopting some radical policies such as the waste management policy and renewable energy policy. As a result, at present, 15% of the material input to the German industries comes from recycling. Furthermore, as at end-2019, the renewable energy (electricity) share of Germany amounted to more than 40%. Among others, Germany’s strong bias towards resource efficiency plays a vital role not only in its economic success but also in its social and environmental leadership. Foreseeing the global economic trajectory that is on a collision course with the resource availability, the nation-wide adaptation of these policy measures those that are primarily based on the principles of efficiency and sufficiency have evidently paved the path towards a sustainable future for Germany with attractive near-term dividends as well.

Against this backdrop, we are particularly proud of the knowledge and insights we have created and the contributions we have made at the CE frontier in Germany and around the world. It is particularly humbling to note that we have shared this wealth of knowledge through the ICEW&C with professionals—amounting to more than 5000—representing both public and private sectors of over 60 countries on five continents since 2009.

‘Creating Value’ at its kernel, ICEW&C has served as a premier platform bringing together like-minded professionals, academia and businesses from all over the world to one unique place on earth—the Environmental Campus Birkenfeld—for weeklong activities to showcase, demonstrate and share knowledge on the latest advancements in the application of Circular Economy. In particular, we focus on the practical aspects of tackling global socioeconomic and technological challenges, building resilient socioeconomic systems, formulating energy transition policies towards 100% renewable energy systems, and sustainable resource management—including water, sanitation and waste management strategies—paying special attention to the sustainable business aspect of the initiatives.

A decade on and going strong, being true to our values, during the 11th ICEC, we intend to share with you the ‘secret of our success’. We intend to show you how we have prepared ourselves to take on the looming resource challenge of our time in the Anthropocene and create sustainable and resilient socioeconomic systems we need.

I cordially invite you to join the 11th ICEC for an unparalleled experience.

I am looking forward to your visit!

Professor Dr. Peter Heck
Managing Director, IfaS

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