Intersections between planetary boundaries and the circular economy

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About the project

On the one hand, planetary boundaries (PBs) encompass nine key earth-system processes that define a safe operating space for humanity and maintain the stability of the earth’s life-supporting systems. However, PBs lack local and regional application due to the global and interactive nature of the boundaries and to the extremely general and scientific evidence-based nature of the PB concept. On the other hand, circular economy (CE) emerged as an umbrella concept, aiming to encapsulate and connect separate knowledge areas and experiences under the common theme of resource efficiency and reduced environmental impacts. However, the capacity of a CE to create the conditions required for meeting human needs within PBs is far from being proven.

This knowledge synthesis report addresses this double-sided challenge by exploring the intersections between PBs and a CE on a conceptual level, building on three sub-objectives: (1) define and evaluate the PB framework; (2) define and evaluate the concept and narratives of CE; and (3) define and evaluate where PBs and CE currently stand and where they should overlap (the intersections). We dug into relevant peer-reviewed articles published in international journals between 2010 and 2019. The results of the literature review helped identify and conceptualize the correlations between CE and PBs based on conceptual grounds and several knowledge spheres to guide policy, governments and businesses in order to achieve coherence in the management of natural resources.

Key findings

  • A growing branch of research seeks to translate and promote the applicability of PBs by explicitly addressing the human dimensions of the bio-geophysical aspects involved in boundary processes. This work is important if the implementation of the PBs is to influence decision-making and action scales as well as value chains.
  • There needs to be more interdisciplinary research that focuses on the practical and political challenges related to enforcing PBs, including the perceived trade-offs between society and the environment as well as economic growth and sustainable environmental and/or social development.
  • From the socio-politico-economic implications of material circularity, addressed during the 1960s, emerges a more recent diversity of CE narrative, which alternatively adopts a holistic or a segmented approach to the relevant social, economic, environmental and political considerations, and a positive or skeptical perception of the capacity of technological innovation to prevent ecological collapse. This work is important to set milestones on the path toward establishing circularity.
  • The elaboration of CE narratives sheds more light on the concept but may complicate the future measurement of its impacts at the local level and even more at the planetary level.
  • Further research is required with regard to (1) methods and standards in order to define global limits (PB); (2) the quantification and allocation of the available resource base, which includes fair-sharing approaches (PB-CE); and (3) how to ensure the enforcement of PBs and how to monitor these goals using both efficient and politically acceptable policy instruments (CE).
  • PBs need to be adapted to local actions (e.g., value chain, territories, companies relevant to CE collective action) in order to create applicability and get closer to addressing CE propositions. Further developments on CE-related assessment tools to evaluate the combined effects of its actions on PBs are needed to effectively and efficiently operate a circular shift while adhering to these boundaries.

Policy implications

  • Policies should connect circularity-related policy-making with their assumptions on circularity narratives, going beyond techno-centred policy-making and consider consumption-related patterns, solutions and strategies.
  • Using more materials inevitably leads to more waste to manage. As a consequence, circular systems require more work and energy to operate. Given the growing interdependence between energy and materials, policies should simultaneously incentivize service economy and green energy technologies.
  • Policy-makers need to identify a pathway, milestones and terms and conditions for CE recommendations within PBs.
  • Policies should be based on the quest for material sufficiency and be preventive; in this line, they should incentivize technological innovation to prevent waste generation and resource consumption.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Emmanuel Raufflet, professor at HEC Montreal and director of the Master of Management and Sustainable Development at HEC;

Geoffrey Lonca, postdoctoral researcher at the department of Management and lecturer at the department of Management of operations and logistics at HEC Montreal;

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR and the Government of Canada

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