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  • Romain Poulles

Circularity, at the heard of the needed system change

The circular economy is much talked about in these times of ecological transition. However, when we talk about this issue, we are only dealing with a small part of the subject. The notion of circularity is more encompassing because it has a systemic dimension: circularity in ecological, social, political, cultural and philosophical terms. It is intuitively more meaningful and motivating for citizens in the broadest sense than the notions of "sustainable development", "biodiversity", "energy transitions" or even "green economy". These themes are still often perceived by many as too abstract and distant. On the other hand, with the concept of circularity, everyone - young people in particular, but also players in the economic or public sectors, politicians or associations, or "ordinary citizens" - immediately perceive themselves as "stakeholders"!

The concept of circular economy is inspired by natural ecosystems, in particular those of plants, the "primary producers", which function in loops. They contribute to their own resilience by optimising the recycling of their scarce or non-renewable resources, such as minerals. It is now well established that any structure, whether physico-chemical, biological, ecological or societal, only exists because, like a cyclone, its locally organised structure favours the disorganisation or uniformisation of the energy of the global system that generates it, while maximising the dissipation of this energy.

Thus plant life appeared because of its entropic capacity to dissipate energy in the form of heat: 90% of the energy captured by a forest is dissipated by evaporation of the energy accumulated by the planet. And 'animal' life forms, including humanity, are derived from this because they in turn maximise the dissipation of the energy accumulated by plant structures. But, unlike the cyclone, humanity has the capacity to become aware, if it wants to (over)live, of its dependence on this limit, which it must not cross, of the exhaustion of the non-renewable resources it consumes and dissipates. By minimising the predatory waste of natural resources and the impacts of their wastes, toxic pollutants and air emissions, it is a matter of "breaking the link between environmental disadvantages and the benefits of economic goods".

In this context, much more than the notions of "sustainable development", "energy transition" or "green economy", this notion of circularity is intuitively much more significant and mobilising for citizens, young people in particular, but also within the economic or public, political or associative sectors, each one perceiving him/herself as a "stakeholder"!

In times of global crises, governments can and must be encouraged, and even forced, to accelerate, and above all to better orchestrate, these changes by creating the dynamics of a circularity of practices in all their dimensions and by encouraging "consumers" to contribute actively. This requires them to operationally harmonise action programmes and implementation responsibilities, both collective and individual; this is done through incentives, coherent legislation, appropriate monitoring indicators capable of meeting these objectives and also accompanied by much stricter and more rigorous real-time governance of action programmes.

A strategy of circularity which, in practice, involves valuing the functionality of a service more than the possession of the good that provides it: sharing it, lending it, renting it, exchanging it, giving it away. This notion of decoupling the uses of resources for value creation from the effects of their impacts was already defined in 2001 by the OECD: "By reducing, reusing and recycling (the 3Rs), such a strategy will better address the sustainability of responses to basic needs while pursuing the capacity to improve well-being and quality of life.

Policy strategies should therefore encourage in all sectors the reduction of 'having', and thus the production of material goods, by promoting the enhancement of 'well-being' through the optimisation of their uses. One piece of good news is that, according to the IPCC 2022 report, for some years now we have been observing such a decoupling between GDP and GHG emissions. However, this decoupling effect, when it occurs, is sometimes only observed for fairly short periods and only concerns certain resources or forms of impact, due in particular to "rebound" effects towards other types of consumption. This circularity must therefore not be limited to simple recycling policies or the reduction of practices such as obsolescence or single use. The real challenge is to adopt circularity strategies that are systemically integrated with all the different societal dimensions mentioned.

The challenge is therefore to mobilise (us) (you) to generate such a societal model of circular eco-lo-no-my that is truly operational and whose resilience and capacity to meet the well-being needs of current and, above all, future generations will be (better) assured.

This requires a fundamental (r)evolution of our perceptions, concepts, mindsets and practices, both individually and collectively. Instead of focusing on a single problem at a time in a traditionally reductive approach, we need to be collectively able to: simultaneously integrate all the different dimensions implied by such decouplings, on the one hand, and, on the other, finally adopt for this purpose the truly integrative operational methodologies of analysis and management that have already largely proved their worth.

An example of an opportunity for strategic States that could be decisive in stimulating and making possible the first economic stages of these transitions would be to act via public procurement as a catalyst for the demand for innovative and more sustainable services and products resulting from more circular economy projects. In particular, to encourage initiatives and pioneering companies investing in circularity by integrating the cost of their externalities and their (re)localisation. This would often be to the detriment of their competitiveness.

Romain Poulles

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