Circular Economy for Climate Action in the MENA

The circular economy could generate $4.5 trn in global economic benefits by 2030
Circular Economy for Climate Action in the MENA
Suzanna Elmassah-Professor of Economics and Sustainability, Zayed University

Humans have released 2,500 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1850, together with the continuous unsustainable use of natural resources. Both pose explicit threats to the global climate and sustainability for future generations.

The world experienced its hottest five-year period between 2015 and 2019. Global sea levels have risen about 8 inches since 1880, threatening coastal cities and ecosystems. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that climate change increases the risk and severity of heat waves, droughts, floods, and storms, which can cause damage to infrastructure, food systems, and health.

Climate change could force 100 million people to fall below the poverty line by 2030, exacerbating existing inequalities. The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) estimates that global resource demand will triple by 2050 and that the circular economy is key to addressing this challenge.

The idea of the circular economy is based on maintaining natural resources by preserving them for the longest possible period and reducing waste in all forms by using it as new input in production operations. The circular economy aims to create a closed-loop system, where waste is seen as a resource and materials are continually cycled back into the economy. This approach substitutes the traditional linear economy of the “take-make-dispose” with the “3Rs” model – reduce, reuse, and recycle – and involves the design of products and systems with circularity in mind, as well as developing new business models that support circular practices.

Read: Waste-to-energy essential to sustaining UAE circular economy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that the circular economy could generate $4.5 trillion in global economic benefits by 2030, reduce carbon emissions by 45% and potentially create 700,000 new jobs. The World Economic Forum reported that circular economy initiatives could save up to $2.4 trillion annually in waste management costs by 2030.

The MENA region is highly vulnerable to climate change; the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, have increased over the past few decades. Climate change could exacerbate water scarcity in the region. The average temperature is expected to increase by 1-2°C by 2030 and 2-5°C by 2100. Rising sea levels could threaten low-lying areas, particularly in coastal cities like Alexandria, Tunisia, and Beirut.

MENA countries can contribute to mitigating climate change in different ways:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions: Circular economy aims to reduce waste and conserve resources, which leads to reduced greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and incineration facilities. By implementing circular economy practices, businesses can lower their carbon footprint.
  • Promoting renewable energy: Circular economy promotes using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, which reduces reliance on fossil fuels and mitigates the impact of climate change.
  • Enhancing resource efficiency: Circular economy emphasizes the efficient use of resources through strategies such as product life extension, reuse, and recycling. This reduces the demand for raw materials and helps to conserve natural resources, thus reducing the overall carbon footprint.
  • Encouraging sustainable consumption: The circular economy encourages consumers to adopt sustainable consumption patterns that prioritize using environmentally friendly products and services. This approach reduces waste generation and promotes the sustainable use of resources.

Circular economy

Some MENA countries have launched several initiatives to accelerate circular economy practices.

  • UAE launched a national strategy for the circular economy, aiming to make the UAE a leader in the sustainable use of resources, reduce waste, and create new job opportunities.
  • Saudi Arabia announced a circular carbon economy (CCE) initiative to reduce carbon emissions while increasing economic growth. The initiative includes investments in clean energy projects, carbon capture and storage technologies, and circular business models.
  • Qatar has launched its National Vision 2030, which focuses on sustainable development and emphasizes the importance of the circular economy.
  • Bahrain has developed a circular economy roadmap to increase resource efficiency, reduce waste, and create economic value from waste streams.
  • Jordan has launched several initiatives to promote the circular economy, including establishing a recycling industry and implementing waste-to-energy projects.

Some examples of circular economy practices in the Middle East region have been reported, such as Dubai’s Waste-to-Energy plant that processes 5k tons of waste daily and converts it into energy and UAE’s future “Smart City” projects, which will focus on sustainable and eco-friendly practices.

Qatar’s plastic recycling initiatives transform plastic into products such as outdoor furniture and road dividers. Oman’s Green Energy Park –creates a circular economy by using renewable energy sources to produce electricity. Saudi Arabia’s Zero-Waste Cities – to achieve its goal of a circular economy by featuring waste management systems that prioritize recycling and composting.

It is worth noting that the circular economy is not a silver bullet for climate action since it should adopt a holistic approach to achieve a sustainable and equitable transition to a low-carbon economy. The circular economy must address social and environmental challenges like resource inequities, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Furthermore, it must be combined with other strategies, such as renewable energy deployment, energy efficiency, and sustainable land use.

Despite the great potential of the circular economy for climate action, the global economy was only 8.6% circular in 2019, as reported by the Circularity Gap Project, meaning that 91.4% of the world’s resources should be used or further utilized.

MENA countries face many challenges in adopting the circular economy, such as lack of infrastructure, limited funding, low awareness and understanding of circular economy principles, inadequate legislative frameworks, and access to technology. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that only 5% of waste in the MENA region is recycled, with much of it ending up in landfills or open dumpsites.

Setting policy actions in the MENA starts with governments setting ambitious targets for such aims and providing grants, funding research and development, and supporting pilot projects. Essential is implementing a sustainable procurement policy, promoting re-manufactured products, and encouraging suppliers to reduce packaging waste. Businesses need to be encouraged to incorporate circular approaches to their business models, such as product as a service, sharing economy, and zero-waste supply chains. Education campaigns for citizens, schools, and local communities play an important role.

The MENA region is gradually recognizing the importance of transitioning to a more circular economy. Progress requires concerted efforts by governments, businesses, civil society organizations, and regional and international cooperation.

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