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‘Throwaway economy’ thwarting climate goals: report

Researchers said national climate pledges to reduce emissions focus narrowly on fossil fuel use and ignore the mounting global appetite for stuff

Countries are neglecting the massive impact of the “throwaway” economy on planet-warming emissions, according to research published Wednesday that calculated more than half a trillion tonnes of virgin materials have been consumed since the 2015 Paris climate deal.

From clothing to food, planes to buildings, research by the organisation Circle Economy estimates that 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the manufacturing and use of products.

Matthew Fraser, head of research at Circle Economy, said the report aimed to look beyond just fossil fuel use and the transition to green energy and ask about the emissions implications of using fewer resources.

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The report estimates that if the economy were more circular, reducing resource extraction and consumption by 28 percent, then the world could meet the Paris warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

It warns that humanity is consuming 70 percent more virgin materials than the world can safely replenish.

The analysis looks at global material flows based on national import and export figures and translates them into estimates of materials used — and reused.

Circle Economy found that almost all of the materials extracted go to waste, with just 8.6 percent of materials recycled in 2020, what they call the circularity gap.

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“Even though we are getting more efficient with how we use materials — computers are getting smaller, cars are becoming lighter, recycling is getting better — these micro gains in efficiency just aren’t stacking up relative to the total increasing demand,” said Fraser.

Fraser said the model that enables people in richer countries to buy products from all over the world to be delivered within hours and days “will inevitably have to change”.

One sector it identified as having a significant opportunity to reduce its materials footprint was buildings and construction, where Fraser said current practices were far from sustainable.

But Fraser said for now the issue remains a significant blind spot for governments, which he said do not pull together data of their countries’ materials footprint.

“Could we become more strict about the metabolism of our economy? Just like you wouldn’t eat junk food all the time,” he said.

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