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Going Circular:
Shifting the Response to the Climate Crisis

15. Nov 2021

Renewable energy will only get us halfway. If we are to achieve net-zero emissions or any other climate target, we need to embrace the circular economy now

Quick insight

It happens at every global climate meeting: A neat set of targets are laid out, usually concerning a reduction in emissions through more renewable energy, protection of ecosystems, and a certain level of required investment from member states. This year’s COP26 was no different. World leaders agreed on ambitious goals such as cutting methane emissions by 30 percent in 2030 and phasing out coal power by the 2040s. But the conversation in Glasgow will not get us to net zero. Nowhere near it, in fact.

While moving to renewables can address 55 percent of global GHG emissions, to achieve UN climate goals it is imperative to tackle the remaining 45 percent (“Completing the Picture: How The Circular Economy Tackles Climate Change,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Material Economics, 2019). We need to shift the current response to include targets for how we design, manufacture and consume resources, specifically targeting the elimination of waste and supporting the regeneration of materials and farmland. Together, these factors can reduce emissions by 9.3 billion tonnes. That is equivalent to eliminating current emissions from all forms of transport globally.

 In other words: The transition to a circular economy can no longer be postponed. The first step is initiating a process that is both concrete and actionable, but which also makes a future circular society so compelling that it is the inevitable choice for societies, businesses, and individuals.

Design is key

Design is key in every step of this process and needs to be implemented at several levels.

  1. Fundamental decisions around the function and environmental footprint of e.g. a product or a building are often made in the early design stage.
  2. By using design thinking, we can engage a diverse range of stakeholders in collaborative innovation, not least civil society. Ensuring that the people who will lead the transformation through the decisions made in their everyday lives have a say. 
  3. Design can change human behavior by making sustainable consumption choices more attractive. How can the design of your home inspire you to make more sustainable decisions that reduce waste? How can a reused product appeal more positively to the consumer? How can we be rewarded for lending, sharing, or repairing a product? This is essentially a design challenge.

Designers all over the world are already working on sustainable solutions that give humans the capacity to drive change. Current projects originating from Denmark demonstrate how a circular future can be both an attainable and attractive scenario:

  • The recent white paper “Designing the Irresistible Circular Society” (Creative Denmark, Danish Design Center, Danish Architecture Center, and BLOXHUB, 2021) showcases a wide range of examples of municipalities, private contractors, architects, and designers working together to rethink housing and urban areas that reduce, reuse, and recycle resources. Take architectural firm Lendager’s Resource Rows that demonstrate how a building’s carbon footprint can be reduced by 70 percent. Or the renovation of the main post office building in the city of Aarhus, a prime example of how preserving the old can be more energy-efficient than building from scratch.
  • The app Too Good to Go combats the massive challenge of global food waste by helping consumers purchase surplus food from stores and restaurants. The intuitive and appealing design of the app together with reduced prices makes the climate-friendly choice an easy one.

We’ve already begun the transition to a circular society – now we must accelerate it by making it an irresistible one. Designing the partnerships, the capacity, and the motivation to create change.

Julie Hjort

Program Director, Green transition

Mail jhj@ddc.dk
Phone +45 2575 8933
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