How the Circular Economy Can Ensure a Just Energy Transition

As the world focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonizing energy, moving away from fossil fuels is a key goal. But this change comes with a new set of challenges – that of providing clean energy resources without repeating the mistakes of the fossil fuel economy, such as the devastating effects on the environment, the loss of biodiversity, the destruction of local communities and the waste of resources. .

Another approach, which was the focus of a roundtable discussion during the COP27 climate talks, highlights ways to incorporate a circular economy framework into clean energy development that can contribute to a just transition.

Incorporating the circular economy into the energy transition

Unfortunately, switching to new energy sources will require increased mining of new materials as we move away from fossil fuels. A recent study by the US Department of Energy, for example, suggests that the US energy system will need more than 3 terawatts of solar capacity in order to decarbonize, which is more than 40 percent of the current capacity increase. Since solar panels require metals and minerals such as cadmium, gallium, copper and zinc to work, more solar energy means greater demand for these materials.

It is possible to apply lessons learned from current mining operations to reduce the impact going forward. Furthermore, increasing efficiency and design for material reuse can reduce material demand and ultimately lead to reduced emissions.

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The Energy Transition Commission – a global coalition of energy producers, energy companies, technology providers, financial players and environmental NGOs committed to achieving net-zero emissions by the middle of the century – is looking at many different scenarios to reduce the impact. That includes exploring how to reduce the current estimated need for new equipment by increasing efficiency and developing circular strategies for recycling and reuse of materials, Mike Hemsley, deputy director of the Commission, said at COP27. Furthermore, technologies that use materials that are currently available in bulk are being tested.

At the other end of the life cycle, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is developing strategies to deal with solar waste. This includes designing “integrated energy systems” that combine advances in generation, maintenance, efficiency and management; towards zero-carbon production and materials; and to identify and use other resources that are “the world’s most abundant” and “the best,” said Ron Benioff, NREL’s international program manager.

Meanwhile, recycling solar waste is more expensive than disposing of it, Benioff said. But policy changes – including setting recycling standards, providing financial incentives and engaging in consumer education – can reduce this and support recycling, he told leaders at COP27.

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Enel, the global utility company based in Italy, has identified a process to provide clean energy through a circular economy by relying on renewable and renewable resources – and wants its suppliers to do the same.

The company is working to achieve circularity “not only through recycling but through innovation,” said Luca Meini, head of sustainability and circular economy initiatives at Enel. The company began offering financial incentives and partnerships with its spin suppliers, and Meini says spin should be part of the core business framework. The result has been profound, and the company has continued to make a profit.

Pushing for positive change

There is a “double mandate to build a decarbonized future and to think today about how we create financial and business models and distribute our money and support in ways that will allow it to move forward in an equally distributed way,” said Jennifer Layke. , global director of the Energy Program at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

So far, it has identified three areas of focus. This includes “product design from scratch” to reduce material consumption by reusing existing materials. Participants should work to identify “business model changes” that will be required to create “life cycle opportunities” for recycling and recycling, and will be challenged to address “the inequality in benefits to society affected by emissions and production,” said Layke.

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When looking to decarbonize, energy stakeholders should “start projects from scratch that will help the local economy and not have a negative impact on the local environment,” Hemsley of the Energy Transition Commission added. Once these projects are done, how can you restore the land to what it was before so that it has as little impact as possible?

The public has the power to push this vision into reality, Hemsley emphasized—pointing to the consumer movement that has spurred recent changes in the auto industry. As consumers have become more aware of the problems with cobalt mining, automakers have moved quickly to replace cobalt with nickel in electric car batteries, and stakeholders continue to push the industry to take a closer look at the environmental impact and human rights when sourcing EV battery materials.

Image credit: Matthew Henry/Unsplash

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