As the Davos event draws to an end, Jim McClelland looks at the missing piece in the jigsaw of climate change

For most of the year, Davos is simply the largest mountain ski resort in Switzerland - home to just over 10,000 permanent residents.

However, for four action-packed days every January, the population swells by some 25%, as the highest town in the Alps plays host to a stellar invitation-only guest list from the worlds of politics, economics, business, celebrity and media.

Davos is the exclusive venue for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which welcomes to the podium every 12 months a wealth of world leaders, Nobel Laureates and corporate icons.

On the programme for 2019 were such luminaries as the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, the Duke of Cambridge and the CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella.

We need to do much, much better than 9%

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

The garden is on fire

With the environment high on the agenda, the media was abuzz with sustainability soundbites from speakers of all ages: broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, 92, declared “the Garden of Eden is no more”; 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg - the inspiration behind the School Strikes 4 Climate Action campaign - urged us to panic and “act as if the house was on fire”.

Proceedings and pronouncements are hyper-newsworthy. As a state-of-the-planet summit, this global get-together serves to set the big-picture agenda and tone for the year ahead. Despite the rarified air of its elevated location, however, Davos does not happen in isolation: it too is inevitably influenced by recent and current world events and trends.

The backdrop for 2019 included the latest alarming outputs of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warning us we have just 12 years left to act. The week before Davos, the WEF’s own Global Risks Report upped the ante still further. Its survey found that extreme weather and climate policy failures are seen as the gravest threats, over a 10-year horizon.

Emergency, emergency

As if proof were needed, international news channels either side of the event carried tragic stories of fatalities lost in flash floods in the Philippines and Indonesia, plus flame-red maps of record-busting heatwaves in Australia. The month of January also saw cities as diverse as Vancouver, in Canada, plus Oxford, England, publicly declaring a state of climate emergency.

This rising sense of urgency, though, is matched by one of doubt. For all the investment in renewable energy worldwide, political progress on climate policy goals is painfully slow: as few as 16 countries out of the 197 that signed the Paris Agreement had actually defined suitably ambitious climate action plans ahead of the UN COP24, held in Katowice, in December.

In truth, Davos was in need of some good news: the stage was set for a gamechanger…

A big idea, not a new idea

Surprisingly, though, the big idea was not new at all, just underappreciated: the circular economy. So, could widespread adoption of circular economy principles alone fix climate change? No. It could though galvanise both a mindset-shift around resource value and a step-change in impact reduction to help deliver that much-needed climate reboot, a lot faster.

Launched at Davos, the Circularity Gap Report 2019 revealed the true depth of the relationship between climate change and resource use. The eye-popping figures from Amsterdam-based think tank Circle Economy suggest that up to 62% of global greenhouse gas emissions are released during the extraction, processing and manufacturing of goods to serve society’s needs; only 38% are emitted in the delivery and use of products and services.

What this means is that embracing circular economy business models to minimise unnecessary extraction, optimise resource efficiency and extend product lifespans can help get the world on target to achieve Paris goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, as per IPCC recommendations.

Ironically, however, the Report also delivers the damning indictment that the circular economy itself is by no means a global success story, as yet. In fact, it confirms our world is only 9% circular and showing no immediate signs of improvement. We reuse as little as 9% of the 92.8 billion tonnes of minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass entering the economy annually - all the other 91% we waste. This spectacular shortfall is dubbed the ‘Circularity Gap’.

So, what is the good news in all of this?

The opportunity is massive. Representing a deliverable decoupling of economic growth from unsustainable resource extraction and emissions, circularity is the paradigm shift behind the "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, called for in Paris.

The opportunity is also real. The Report offers specific takeaways to help identify next steps, sets out key strategies and provides recommendations for governments. In addition, it applies Circularity Gap Metric analysis to specific industry sectors, notably the built environment.

Raw numbers for the built environment are indicative of the scope and scale of potential for the circular economy.

What a prize

The sector is forecast to grow dramatically by 2050, but already accounts for approximately one fifth of all global emissions and consumes nearly half of all materials going into the economy – some 42.4 billion tonnes a year. This is the size of the prize.

So far, climate strategies have focused on renewable power generation and storage, energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation. The circular economy is the missing piece in the jigsaw.

The word from Davos is: if we want to live in a 1.5°C world, it must be more than 9% circular.

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker