The extraction of raw materials worldwide has more than doubled since 1990 and could double again by 2060, fuelling environmental degradation and increased vulnerability to climate change. As major users and producers of natural resources, 56 countries of the UNECE region, spanning from North America to Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, have made a united call at UNECE to accelerate the shift to a circular economy and greener, more responsible resource use.
“We have to find a new balance between prosperity and environmental preservation, but we have a long way to go, as currently only 8.6% of economic activity around the globe is circular. We must therefore abandon the take-make-waste model to embrace a circular economy approach as a means to deliver on climate change and create green jobs. UNECE stands ready to bring its normative and policy expertise to bear, to support concrete and impactful action – now”, stated Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova in her address to the 69th session of the UN Economic Commission for Europe – UNECE’s highest institutional body.
Recognizing this shift as a priority for the region, member States stressed in a high-level statement that “in a world being shaken by the multiple impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, regional cooperation has acquired an increased importance to manage risks, reduce uncertainty and foster economic dynamism”, emphasizing that “the historical mandate of UNECE to facilitate concerted action for the economic development and integration of the region is as relevant as ever.”
Governments share concrete engagements for circularity
At the session, governments announced commitments for bold action to strengthen measures for circularity and sustainable resource use:
Among wide-ranging measures, Azerbaijan pledged to restore 50,000 ha of degraded land and plant 4 million trees in 2021-2023.
The Russian Federation pledged to construct 220 waste treatment, disposal and recycling complexes by 2030, ensuring 100% sorting of waste and halving the amount of waste sent to landfill. Through an action plan on energy efficiency, the country also pledged to reduce GDP energy intensity by 20% of 2017 levels by 2030, and cut electricity losses in the electricity grid to a maximum of 8%.
Israel pledged to phase out energy generating from coal by 2025 (in 2019, coal accounted for 30% of the country’s energy production); to produce 70% of its energy from natural gas and 30% from renewable energy sources by 2030; and to generate 95% of electricity from renewable sources by 2050.
The United Kingdom’s Strategic Priorities Fund has allocated £30 million to establish five circular economy research centres and a central hub which will harness industry and academic expertise to help deliver a circular economy.
Austria announced the development of a Circular Economy Strategy, to be opened for broad consultations this summer.
Greece aims at reducing the consumption of cups for beverages and food containers at least by 30% by 2024 and by at least 60% by 2026 compared to 2022.
Germany announced it will provide extrabudgetary funding of €20 million for an energy efficiency project in the UNECE region, aiming to improve the performance of the construction industry in delivering products for high-performance buildings.
Voluntary commitments from Belarus included to increase by 2025 the share of the secondary use of solid municipal wastes to at least 35% of total volume of generated waste.
These measures will complement a wide range of concrete experiences shared by countries, ranging from targeted actions – such as green public procurement (which in Latvia comprised 29% of total public procurements in 2020), the application of UNECE’s UNFC framework for sustainable resource management in Finland, and Estonia’s bottle deposit scheme through which 90% of plastic bottles and 86% of glass placed on the market are collected and recycled –, to comprehensive circularity strategies and initiatives, including those aligned with broader frameworks like the EU’s circular action plan.
In a keynote address, European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans said “the European Union is working to become the first climate neutral continent. We need to decouple growth from resource use and fully embrace the model of a circular economy. For that, we must profoundly change our production and consumption patterns”.
“I am inspired by the many ambitious voluntary actions that all member States have committed to. The most common focus areas include waste management, sustainable food systems, change of consumption patterns, eco design, extended producer responsibility, markets for secondary raw materials, public procurement, technology development, financing, investment and employment. UNECE is keen to work with member States on this journey of transformation”, highlighted Olga Algayerova.
Countries set course to further harness cooperation at UNECE
Vehicle regulations, waste, forest certification, resource classification and traceability in supply chains are just a few of the areas where UNECE is already contributing to countries’ efforts. Member States stressed that such tools can “make an important contribution to foster circular and more resource-efficient economies and improve the management of natural resources in the region and beyond. UNECE’s varied expertise, covering multiple thematic areas, provides a fertile ground for cross-sectoral action and partnerships that are necessary to accelerate progress”.
To further harness this unique role, countries called on UNECE to consider in its normative work the regulatory gaps that currently prevent faster development of more circular and resource-efficient economies.
Another key area will be to address the current lack of a measurement framework and guidance to define the scope of circular economy – including the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development –, which hinders the development of national plans and initiatives.
In response, a UNECE Task Force on Measuring circular economy, led by Finland and composed of leading experts from countries, will be working in the coming two years to define the measurement scope of circular economy and prepare practical Guidelines to support measurement in a systematic and internationally comparable way.
At the request of member States, UNECE will present a progress report on its work to promote the circular economy and the sustainable use of natural resources at its 70th session in 2023.
Building on the successful previous sessions of the Regional Forum as a platform for peer learning and the exchange of policy experiences and good practices in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, Member States also decided to continue to convene annual sessions of the Regional Forum in the years 2022 and 2023.
Member States elected Austria to Chair the Commission for the next two years, alongside Vice-Chairs Switzerland and Turkmenistan.