Circular cities: Transforming urban landscapes for a sustainable future

23 November 2023

As the world grapples with the urgent need to combat climate change, cities are at the forefront of this battle responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A recent project by Nordic Sustainability and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation emphasises the pivotal role cities play in reducing emissions, but also concludes that the potential of the circular economy to achieve urban net-zero goals is largely untapped.

The circular economy’s climate potential

While renewable energy and energy efficiency are essential for addressing climate change, they alone can only mitigate 55% of global emissions. The remaining 45% are directly linked to the production, consumption, and management of products, materials, and food. The circular economy offers a powerful framework to tackle these emissions by eliminating waste, circulating products and materials, and regenerating nature. 

Cities play a critical role in the battle against climate change. Cities, home to half of the world’s population, are responsible for 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. As the urban population and consumption continue to grow, so do urban emissions. However, cities also hold immense potential to reduce emissions through various means, including policy implementation and transitioning to circular economy practices. 

City climate action plans: the circular economy’s current standing

Despite this potential, city Climate Action Plans (CAPs) do not significantly incorporate circular economy principles. While two-thirds of CAPs mention the circular economy, it is primarily related to waste management. We must broaden our understanding of the circular economy to include principles that eliminate waste by design and regenerate nature. Only a few cities, such as San Francisco and Salvador, demonstrate high levels of circular economy integration.

A need for deeper integration

Despite limited integration, the project identified promising circular economy measures in various sectors, including transport, built environment, food and agriculture, and consumer goods. These measures hold the potential to reduce emissions and promote sustainability. 

To meet climate targets and bring about transformative change, a deeper integration of circular economy principles across sectors and strategies is needed. It also emphasizes the need for city governments to gain a better understanding of the circular economy’s benefits. Cities must support practices that keep products in use – like repair and remanufacturing – which prevents waste generation and reduces the need for consuming new products and materials. Simultaneously implementation of nature-based carbon sequestration helps reduce emissions in the atmosphere, build climate change resilience, and strengthen biodiversity. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers specific policy actions to guide cities in transforming their built environment, mobility systems, food sectors, and more. 

Unlocking a world of benefits

The circular economy is not just about reducing emissions. It’s a comprehensive approach that addresses biodiversity loss, creates jobs, builds climate resilience, and fosters prosperity. For example, circular business models in the textile industry could reshape the global fashion market by 2030, thus making up 23% of it, while local circular solutions can enhance urban health and improve access to nutritious food. 

When waste and pollution are minimized, emissions throughout the value chain can be reduced and mitigated. By promoting the circulation of products and materials, we can retain embodied emissions within the economy, extracting enhanced value from the resources invested in their production, including materials, labour, and capital. Additionally, regenerating nature and natural systems contributes to improved carbon sequestration.

By adopting circular principles, we can eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature. These principles not only reduce emissions but also contribute to biodiversity conservation, climate adaptation, and economic prosperity. 

Circular economy principles align with recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Strategies like supporting public transport, green infrastructure, and addressing scope 3 emissions are pivotal in achieving urban net-zero goals and reducing congestion and pollution.

Paving the way to a sustainable future 

We are committed to continuing our efforts to drive circular economy innovation in cities and work towards a more sustainable future. For further insights and specific policy actions for cities to implement circular economy practices, we encourage you to explore the resources provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Together we can collectively bring about the transformative change needed to combat the climate crisis.  

Author details

Maja Johannessen

Head of Innovation and Knowledge, Senior Manager