With a symbolic launch on World Environment Day, the first World Circular Economy Forum brought together more than 1500 participants from business, policy and civil society from 150 countries last week. All came to Helsinki to discuss the circular economy. The vivid exchange highlights the need to create an economy that enables us to live within planetary boundaries.
The Forum underlines the growing support for a Circular Economy. It brought together a comprehensive portfolio of current circular-economy initiatives. These include the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, the Circular Economy Roadmap of the Finnish government, new products and services of global corporations like Stora Enso or Startups like VIGGA, as well as scientific projects like Circulus or Circwaste and city initiatives like the Circular Economy Plan of Amsterdam. At the same time, it highlighted that the attention given to the Circular Economy originates predominantly in Europe, and particularly in the business community. More than half of the participants were from European business. Civil society organizations or participants from Asia, Africa, Latin America or North America were still underrepresented.
Despite a largely European audience, participants critically discussed the global dimensions of overconsumption of resource worldwide and the pressing need for a paradigm change in the economy and society. In a pointed analysis of the current state of affairs, speakers like Janez Potocnik presented scientific evidence showing that global material efficiency has been declining over the past ten years while material consumption has grown. Furthermore, consumption has been a stronger driver of material use than population growth, with the richest countries consuming ten times more than poorest countries.
While there seems consensus on that such a shift is necessary, critical questions on how to realize this shift had been left open at the Forum. These include for example questions of the required labor force or the amount and source of energy to achieve a transition. Another question was whether efforts of businesses will provide enough drive for a full transition. Symptomatically, when asked in a poll to judge current efforts of the private sector, the audience was divided into optimists and pessimists.