Governments, businesses and individuals around the world are increasingly recognizing that the way our economies function cannot be sustained if we are to stem the tide of climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity loss and reduce our negative impacts on the environment. A more sustainable approach requires us to move towards a circular model, in which raw materials, energy, products and information circulate and recirculate for as long as possible.
Planning and managing a transition from a linear to a circular economic model requires a wide range of data and statistics. Figures are essential for planners to know where we are starting from, where we wish to go, and what works or doesn’t work so well to help us get there.
But what sort of figures do we need? Simple, bitesize statistics can help policymakers and thought leaders draw attention to the issue: “8.6 per cent of economic activity around the globe is circular”, as UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova told the UNECE’s 69th Commission session earlier this year, setting an ambitious goal for the region to reach a double digit circularity rate by 2023.
Underlying such a headline figure, however, is an overwhelming array of data. We need to know about patterns of extraction of raw materials; forest destruction and restoration; energy use and efficiency; recycling trends; waste volumes; the number of ‘green jobs; the traceability of supply chains; the economic value of resource and energy streams; and much, much more.
As highlighted in a High-Level Regional Policy Dialogue on transitioning to a circular economy in October, the transition is not only about environmental protection, waste and materials management, but also innovation and opportunity. Statistics are therefore also needed on more abstract topics such as investment in innovation.
Responding to this need, UNECE and Statistics Canada brought together about 170 statisticians, economists and other experts on 14 December for a seminar ‘Measuring circular economy: The stats we need and how to get them’.
The national examples presented by Canada, Colombia and the Netherlands illustrated the often ambitious policy goals. For example, the city of Toronto set an aspirational goal of working toward zero waste and a full circular economy.
The Dutch company Royal DSM presented five circularity drivers which help them to not only increase efficiency in production, but also limit use of virgin resources and releases of waste and other harmful substances to the environment. The circularity drivers focused on includes the reduction of use of critical resources, the replacement of scarce and potentially harmful resources, the extension of the lifetime of products, the design of products for recyclability and the recovery of waste streams.
Measuring material flows and other circular economy phenomena on different levels (e.g. company level, city level, national level) in coherent manner remains a challenge. Statistics Canada and Eurostat presented how the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), a global statistical standard, can provide a good statistical foundation for measuring different aspects the circular economy by integrating environment and economic statistics in an internationally harmonised way.
A roundtable with representatives of Statistics Netherlands, UNEP, Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), United Nations University and the consulting company Midsummer Analytics concluded that current statistics need to be reviewed in several ways to become better for measuring the circular economy. For example, business statistics programmes usually do not focus on measuring the repair sector, because this sector has become unimportant over the last decades. Therefore, there is a need to modify business surveys for producing better statistics on that important aspect of a circular economy. Granularity of information is important, for example many decisions are taken on the company level or the city level. Making the link between the micro- and the macrolevel is key.
Even if there is progress in many countries in measuring circularity, there are several challenging questions remaining. A UNECE Conference of European Statisticians task force established earlier this year is tackling the question of how to define circularity from a measurement point of view so that standardized, comparable indicators can be produced.
Executive Secretary Ms Olga Algayerova highlighted the UNECE Task Force on Measuring Circular Economy as a concrete contribution to this effort, bringing together experts from many countries and international organisations to develop statistical guidelines. This Task Force is at the forefront of global initiatives to support the production of statistics fit for purpose for better managing and measuring this important policy area.
The recordings of the seminar are available at: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLe6uBaBVebZDA2du_eSbwjtdSazDGIa20. Meeting documents can be downloaded from: https://unece.org/info/events/event/361846.