2C Conference: redesigning our economic model for a circular economy

Posted on 22 March 2019.

Climate change is not just a passing phase but the beginning of a completely different and unknown world.

March 13, 2019 marked the return - for the fourth year in a row - of the 2C conferences organized by the Veolia Foundation at La REcyclerie. This annual cycle of four conferences aims to share the circular economy’s main principles and challenges with the general public, and in particular with students.

Organized by the CliMates youth network, the conferences bring in different experts depending on the theme. Dominique Bourg - philosopher and sponsor of the 2C conference cycle - was present for the launch of the 2019 program.

At the heart of the evening's discussions was a vital question: how can we redesign our economic model for a circular economy?

The deterioration in the habitability of the planet

"Let's start with a little history," began Dominique Bourg. People became interested in the climate towards the end of the 90s. At the time, we were convinced we were dealing with a transitory problem. We thought that the concentration of CO2 levels in the atmosphere wouldn’t last more than a century, the rise in average temperatures on Earth would not be very great and technology would help us reduce any climate warming.

In fact, we were completely wrong! During the first decade of the 21st century, we have realized that the high concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will last several centuries and above all, that climate change is not just a passing phase but the beginning of a completely different world. This changes everything. In 2018, the planet - particularly the northern hemisphere - experienced the worst heat waves and droughts since we began tracking the weather. 2018 marked a moment in time when everyone was able to see that the climate is changing and will change faster than we imagined.

We are also starting to realize the extent to which life is collapsing all over the planet. And in particular insects. Over a period of 27 years in Germany, 75% of flying insects have disappeared. Another study has shown that globally, 41% of insects - in total, not just flying insects - experienced accelerated decline with an annual loss of 2.5% in their numbers. In other words, in just a few decades, whole populations have been disappearing.

"The issue is the deterioration in the habitability of the planet", summed up Dominique Bourg. "The climate is never just the optimal conditions for living species to flourish on Earth. If there are no more species, what good is the climate?!"

Renouncing consumerism

The situation is extremely serious. It's not a time for half measures. The latest IPCC report, published in 2018, estimates that to reverse this trend we have to halve our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. 81% of our energy currently comes from natural fossil resources. So-called "carbonized" energy, which accelerates the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

However, there is some good news too: studies estimate that the planet has all the resources necessary for meeting the basic needs of 8 billion people. But, as Dominique Bourg pointed out, there’s one condition - that we renounce consumerism. However as things stand every economy encourages consumerism. "We have designed our economy to be a system that is totally independent of nature. The challenge today is to reintegrate nature". A new economic paradigm is required - all our production and consumption patterns need to be reexamined. And that’s what the circular economy offers.

Optimizing resources

When it comes to the circular economy, most people think of it as recycling. But recycling is only one of the 7 pillars. The ultimate challenge at the heart of the circular economy is efficient resource management.

This challenge encourages companies to redesign their businesses. For example, in just a few years, Veolia has gone from being a waste operator to a recycled raw materials producer. "We are creating synergies between the resources we handle: water, energy and waste," explained Amélie Rouvin, Head of Circular Economy at Veolia. "For example, we recover the heat released by bacteria in wastewater to heat eco-neighborhoods or public swimming pools in the same city – which forms local circular economy loops."

Another perfect illustration: in Tangier’s Renault plant in Morocco, Veolia operates three biomass boilers fuelled by the olive kernel waste generated by the local production of olive oil. The boilers produce the hot water the plant needs. 100% renewable thermal energy produced in a short loop! 

 Getting all the economic actors to cooperate

"The circular economy also helps us understand that we’re in a global ecosystem," continued Amélie Rouvin. Start-ups, large groups, NGOs, communities, citizens should not be in opposition... To enter this new circular economy paradigm, it’s not only a question of getting all the economic actors on board but also of getting them working together.

This is Veolia’s whole philosophy - it collaborates with a large number of companies, start-ups and associations - in particular though its social open innovation program "Pop Up by Veolia" created in 2014. The goal is to support and accelerate the projects brought by actors of change within the territories. These may be financial and operational partnerships with social entrepreneurs, or in the form of co-developing services.

For example, Veolia has partnered with the Logiscité association to raise awareness among people living in energy poverty about good water management practices. This joint action has enabled these households to reduce their annual water consumption by as much as 25%.

Since the pop-up approach launched in 2014, a total of 15 incubators have been created in a number of French cities as well as across the world – for example in Mexico City.

Incentivizing public authorities

Another lever in the circular economy transition is the public authorities’ use of regulation, support and tax incentives. For example, in December 2018 the European Union voted to ban single-use plastics (straws, cutlery, cotton buds, etc.) in all Member States by 2021. In France, the Secretary of State Brune Poirson announced the introduction of a bonus scheme to reduce the price of products that incorporate recycled materials. Another example: the Extended Producer Responsibility Act obliges cigarette manufacturers to take responsibility for the end-of-life of their products by organizing cigarette butt collections and public awareness campaigns. Marline Weber from France’s National Circular Economy Institute said that a circular economy bill is also expected in 2019, a draft of which was made public in January.

The circular economy at the heart of public debate

Finally, mobilizing citizens is crucial and can have a significant impact. Everyone can make suggestions for building a more circular and resource-efficient economy.

Against this backdrop the National Circular Economy Institute has developed 10 proposals for public authorities - including banning the destruction of unsold products, introducing a reduced rate circular VAT on activities and goods produced through the circular economy, and educating and informing children. "The younger generation is already very aware of the issues, and the next will be even more so. They are carrying the seeds of change!" concluded Marline Weber.