We are in increasing ecological debt. A circular economy might help stop the debt worsening but only a regenerative economy that gets us to within planetary boundaries will repay that debt and return us to credit.

Forest City Malaysia

Forest City Malaysia – we need to put back nature everywhere.

Limitations of the circular economy

To make the circular economy work organisations need to purchase products that have been made from recycled materials. But many materials, especially when there have been contaminated, cannot be recycled. They face a gradual downward slope ending in heat death incineration.

It’s about increasing entropy – that is to say disorder. For which, read usefulness. There’s only so many times paper and plastic can be recycled.

There’s only one principle in existence on planet Earth which reverses entropy, creating order from chaos, usefulness from dust – and that is life.

Life’s organising principle, from the cell, through organisms, ecosystems, and up to the ecosystem of the entire planet, is what gives us life and our life support system.

This life-support system is defined by limits – planetary boundaries. Planetary boundaries represent the limits of nature’s resources.

Yes, nature is a circular economy: there is no waste. This metaphor is often used to explain the need for the circular economy. If we have no waste everything will be fine, this argument goes.

But a mechanical circular economy without extra energy inputs will always tend to disorder.

In nature, this energy ultimately comes from the sun, whose light and heat powers photosynthesis, which creates sugars, used by cells to grow and reproduce and create abundance.

Any circular economy of value therefore must exclusively be powered from renewable energy.

But even that would not be enough to get us out of the mess we’re in.

Because right now if everyone in the world was to live the way people on average in developed countries live, then we would need up to five planet Earths. We are that wasteful. Our ecological footprint is that large.

The value of the ecological footprint

The ecological footprint represents a profit and loss balance sheet accounting for the extent of supply (nature’s resources and ability to absorb our pollution) and demand (by us).

We are currently well in the red – in deficit.

The challenge we face is to meet the well-being and sustainable development goals within planetary boundaries, i.e. in the black.

Any report on the ecological footprint of country will tell you that the biggest factor influencing its size is the level of consumption. Or rather it’s the impacts of consumption.

Any consumed service or product can be obtained in a number of ways and each will have different levels and types of impact. For example you can travel from London to Edinburgh using a variety of modes of transport each of which will have different carbon footprints.

Yes, minimising pollution and maximising resource efficiency in a circular economy are two ways of reducing these impacts. But they will only at best take you to a steady state. I.e. your debt to nature won’t increase, but it won’t reduce either.

We have to pay it back into nature’s bank

Only one thing will reduce the debt – to pay back into the bank of nature. We have to take action to improve the present level of natural resources.

The most impactful way we can do that is to change agriculture, forestry and mining to make them regenerative. And make our cities regenerative too.

This especially means adopting practices that improve soil quality (using natural solutions instead of nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides). It also means improving biodiversity, planting forests and meadows, and avoiding extensive monocultures.

All of these practices will sequester atmospheric carbon, so they will also tackle climate change.

The extra value from procurement

It follows that when organisations procure land-based products – from mining, food, timber products, textiles, furniture, crafts, etc. – their contracts should determine that these are sourced from suppliers that adopt regenerative practices.

The European Union and several other countries (including Wales, where it’s now aligned with the pioneering Well-Being of Future Generations Act) are adopting social value tools to use with procurement. These also include tools to encourage the use of the circular economy.

Green public procurement is defined by the EU as “a process whereby public authorities seek to procure goods, services and works with a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle when compared to goods, services and works with the same primary function that would otherwise be procured”.

Reduced impact” is not enough. “Positive impact” is required to repay the debt.

An ecological value tool is needed

An ecological value tool is needed that can measure the extent to which supply chains are regenerative and steer economies to within planetary limits – into what is called “the safe operating space for humanity” or “sustainable prosperity for all”.

The metrics used in this tool would help determine whether the regenerative actions taken are sufficient for this purpose.

Environment agencies in most developed countries keep track of data such as land use change, vegetation types, soil, air and water quality.

The relevant regional assessment data in relation to planetary boundaries collected by environment agencies are:

1. Greenhouse gas emissions

2. Biodiversity integrity

3. Water quality, acidity, eutrophication, and amount

4. Land use change – increase or decrease in biodiversity and soil carbon

5. Biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorus

6. Air pollution – created by the burning of coal, oil, crops, wood, and from vehicles and dust from mechanical and agricultural activity and wind.

7. Plastic use (single use plastic) and waste management.

Within any geographical area these data can be converted with handy algorithms to represent the proportion of planetary boundaries.

Regional information includes the area of the region (km2) and its population and demographics, and its consumption levels.

The ecological footprint can never be completely accurate because of its complexity but it does give us a reasonable idea of where we’re at and is a great communication tool.

Ecological Footprints and impacts explained

Above: The planetary boundaries and their impacts and indicators. Source: Science of the Total Environment 693 (2019) 133642, Elsevier.

planetary boundaries applied to the life cycle of a product or a sheep farm

Above: Example of the application of the boundaries approach to a product and a sheep farm. Source: Science of the Total Environment 693 (2019) 133642, Elsevier

Work is ongoing to develop the algorithms for planetary boundaries in terms of per-capita and global allowance, and for resource depletion.

Deployed alongside tools to measure the circular economy and social value, economies will then have a chance of increasing the security and well-being of future generations as well as tackling climate change.

Perhaps more importantly they will also support many other beneficial forms of life in our life-support system.

David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.