21 Sep 2017

Circular economy resort A tourism resort promoting local materials, embedded in the natural surroundings of Lao PDR. Photo: UNDP Lao PDR, Circular Economy Strategies

What is circular economy and how can it drive climate ambitions of developing countries? 

Circular economy strategies aim to promote the transformation of countries towards resource efficient societies. This requires a behavioral change of policy makers, large corporations and the civil society, each of us. It also requires educating the public. Massive awareness raising campaigns will need to promote recovery and reuse of everyday materials, resource-efficient design, replacement of conventional materials with sustainable materials, sharing rather than owning, and repair instead of replacement. This will truly be a paradigm shift towards a responsible civil society that makes daily informed consumption choices.

Globally, we see that approaches that are using everything within a cycle of production are gaining momentum: Governments are announcing laws that encourage repair and discourage disposal, companies are promoting sharing rather than owning and individuals are making sustainable material choices for their homes, for example. The circularity spirit is spreading widely and there is an effort of think tanks and large foundations to strategically introduce it to developing countries. At the same time, climate change experts and practitioners are concerned that the world may need a new approach to increase the climate ambition of developing countries in order to enable the achievement of the Paris Agreement which signatory countries have pledged to contribute to.

Smart development instead of catching up

Countries with neglectable current contributions to global emissions but growing economies, are not sufficiently encouraged to make low carbon choices. Low carbon choices, such as shifting to renewable energies or increased energy efficiency in industrial facilities might be seen as a threat for their economic growth. Understandably, such countries focus first and foremost on advancing their economic growth. Circular economy can be an alternative development approach for their economies, encouraging smart and innovative approaches, thereby avoiding the mistakes that developed countries made, rigorously skipping the ‘catching-up’ and moving directly to state-of-the-art technologies, and cutting-edge methods that require thinking outside the box. 

Circular economy as a concept has the - not yet fully discovered - potential to combat climate change at scale while advancing development in key development sectors, involving all of society, including the informal sector, promoting entrepreneurship, incubation, innovation and pioneering, and improved consumer-producer relations.

One country, one metabolism

The new Circular Economy study for Lao PDR, released by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) in collaboration with the Institute of Renewable Energy Promotions of the Government of Lao PDR,  promotes innovative sustainable development approaches which look at a country as a living metabolism in the fastest growing sectors of their economy, its hydropower resources, a solid agricultural and forestry basis for expanding ecotourism, its modest wages and the integration into the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Economic Community. The study shows that recycling and re-use, in the societies of developing countries, is often the most traditional way they produce and live, by using natural materials, avoiding waste that cannot be recycled and by reusing materials as long as they last. It’s inspired by nature, looking at a closed cycle.

One of the proposed strategies for Lao PDR is to promote the design of circular touristic resorts which will use local construction methods fully integrated into the landscape and source food locally, recycling nutrients back to the land from which the food products originate. 

This concept is not new to Lao PDR and would build on experience from existing programs that promote organic farming or experience from entrepreneurs which already connect organic agriculture with tourism. Ultimately, the operation of the resort should be inspired by the way in which local communities produce food, use water and recycle food waste.

Drawing on ancestral knowledge

So, although we talk about innovative new approaches in order to skip unsustainable economic practices that are common in most developed countries, circular economy is also about looking back at the knowledge of our ancestors. This is not an easy task for many developing nations and their young generation that looks at global examples that are almost always unsustainable. If we want to encourage developing countries to embrace circular economy approaches, developed countries need to lead by example and rigorously mainstream circularity in their everyday business behavior at much faster pace.

The Government of Lao PDR is highly committed to the 2030 Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its core. This can be seen not only in the alignment of national plans and strategies to the 2030 Agenda, but also in the country’s commitment to submit a National Voluntary Report on sustainable development to the United Nations in July 2018.

After historic climate talks in Paris in 2015, the Paris Agreement was created, offering a unique opportunity for developing countries to apply circular economy approaches, while meeting their global commitments to countering climate change. Through international collaboration between buyers and sellers of goods, financial incentives could be designed to promote products with a lower carbon footprint and sustainable consumption, while shifting responsibility and financial obligation for carbon intensive production, so that developing countries have an opportunity to further sustainable growth. This also presents an opportunity on the global stage to redefine climate finance contributions to developing countries. The concepts of circular economy will thus help Lao PDR in both accelerating SDG localization, and growing their economy.

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