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UK needs to go ‘full circle’ to reach Net Zero, says Dame Ellen MacArthur at circular economy programme launch

A fundamental shift in how we use resources is the future of business and crucial to reaching Net Zero by 2050, but will require collaboration on a vast scale, according to Dame Ellen MacArthur.

Published 10th June 2021

Speaking last month at the launch of the NICER Programme, the UK’s largest circular economy research programme to date, Dame Ellen outlined the challenges and opportunities ahead for the interdisciplinary programme.

The National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research programme comprises 34 universities and 200 industry partners and at its core consists of a national hub based at the University of Exeter Business School and five national centres, each focusing on a different circular economy discipline – from technology metals to textiles to chemicals.

Dame Ellen, a former sailing champion turned champion of the circular economy, said this interdisciplinary approach is essential for the economy to transition from a ‘linear model’, where resources are taken, made into products and then thrown away, into a ‘circular model’ based on eliminating waste, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Circular economy is an approach to how the global economy works, it’s looking at that materials backbone and making those materials cycle. It’s a very broad opportunity, it’s about rethinking business models as much as it’s rethinking the materials that fit in the system. It’s about design, distribution and value chains – it’s everything.

Dame Ellen MacArthur -

Answering questions from Professors Peter Hopkinson and Fiona Charnley, Co-Directors of the Circular Economy Hub, which will take a leading role in the NICER programme, Dame Ellen explained this ‘broad opportunity’ is only possible through collaboration, including between the biggest competitors, and with business, education and governments all working towards a common goal.

One of the NICER programme’s aims is to create a UK roadmap for a future UK circular economy, and for Dame Ellen it will be an opportunity to “elevate the conversation” around circular economy.

“We can’t continue to squeeze more profit out of a linear system in the long term. We have finite resources and a growing world population so things have to change,” she said, adding that the debate around circular economy has moved on “stratospherically” from when she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation 10 years ago.

“We are now having conversations with multiple chief execs from some of the biggest competitors in the world on the same call about how to make that sector circular, and that’s really important, she said.

“They now realise it’s not just about what they do within their business, but everything has to change and they can’t do it on their own.”

Looking at how products are made and the energy it takes to make them should be considered vital to the UK government’s target of Net Zero by 2050, Dame Ellen went on to say.

“We looked at what we needed to do to keep on a 1.5 degrees trajectory, and if you switch to renewable energy it can get you up to half of that, but what we need to do is look at the other half and that’s to do with how things are made, it’s the embodied energy within materials and within products.”

Transforming the steel, aluminium, cement, food and plastic packaging industries so that they used circular economy methods would, she said, help reduce UK emissions by a quarter of the required target to reach 1.5 degrees of global warming by 2050.

“If you remanufacture something it has far less embodied energy in it – there’s a massive change in the energy demand to create that product if you go back to the remanufacturing phase. There’s a massive opportunity to switching to circularity and we won’t get to NetZero unless we do that.”

You can find out more about the NICER programme and hear Dame Ellen MacArthur’s introductory talk again on 11 June at the University of Exeter’s Green Futures Conference.

Register here: greenfutures.exeter.ac.uk/event/green-futures-conference

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