BEIJING: Shifting towards a more circular economy focused on reuse, remanufacturing and recycling may provide an urgent boost to growth and jobs in developing countries, and China can play a leading role.
Interest in the circular economy has grown over the past decade in recognition that current rates of resource consumption are unsustainable. The shift to a more sustainable model of economic growth requires a circular economy in which products are recycled, repaired or reused, and waste from one process is used as an input into others. In 2015, the Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals both highlighted the urgent need for “transformative” approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource use. At the same time, a circular economy is being made possible by advances in information technology.
Digital eBay-style marketplaces for waste products and materials are, for example, being piloted in the US and ‘trace and return’ software is allowing firms to track products in the economy to optimise use and facilitate repairs and upgrading. Until recently, the circular economy had largely been considered a rich-country agenda. Although pressures from resource extraction and waste are often more immediate in developing countries, and despite these countries often being considered more “circular” than wealthier ones, few studies have assessed the opportunities and risks for lower-income countries that are shifting towards a circular economy. n trade, the short-term goal should be to align standards and build global markets for circular economy products. Here it will be crucial to work with other major markets and regional players that are accelerating action in this area.
Yet attempts to collaborate have been limited. One exception is the proposed China-Japan-Korea Circular Economy Model Bases, which aim to identify shared lessons on circular economy. Finally, there is the question of how the circular economy fits within China’s existing international priorities, including its Belt and Road Initiative. There has been little discussion of circular economy in the context of Belt and Road projects, although some of the infrastructure investment planned is focused on waste management and processing.
The long-term success of the initiative rests on China being able to get more partners to embrace its vision and finance projects.
Making the circular economy more of a focus may be one way of enhancing collaboration, particularly with other economies for which circular activities are a major priority, such as the EU.
The decisions China takes over the next few years whether on lessons sharing and cooperation, trade or Belt and Road will shape the course of the circular economy for decades. China should continue to upgrade its circular economy strategy at home and also seek opportunities to promote the agenda abroad. It can do this through cooperation on standards and trade, and infrastructure investment projects under Belt and Road. In doing so, China has a unique opportunity to help other developing countries make the leap to a circular economy.