Focus area

Climate Impact of Circularity

Circularity allows us to reach more sustainable ways of producing and consuming products and materials. It has the potential to indirectly help reduce emissions by maximising the use of resources and reducing primary production.

However, with current waste management systems, it is impossible to ensure a permanently closed cycle of materials due to their degradation and the accumulation of impurities in the system. 

Accurately measuring the climate impact of circularity is complex because of its numerous parameters like recycling rates, energy use in collecting and sorting, additional energy use in recycling, and end-of-life treatment. This can lead to inflated claims that can hinder climate mitigation efforts.  

In short:

  • Circularity is not a closed loop and requires additional resources: energy use, material resources, and waste are inevitable and should be accounted for.

  • Circularity always incurs losses and will therefore rarely be able to fully meet demand. 

  • Circularity should be measured with a systemic approach because of its potential impacts in different parts of the value chains. 

Circularity measures can indirectly result in emissions reductions in some cases. Quantifying the true impact of such cases enables green claims made from such measures to be validated. Inflated claims can fuel inappropriate advantages and can sometimes even be detrimental to overall climate mitigation efforts. Accurate greenhouse gas accounting anchors circularity, ensuring true reductions efforts are appropriately awarded.  

Accounting for how much recycled material can replace virgin products is difficult because it requires the assessment of the entire system to measure the displacement. Moreover, carbon stored in a product cannot remain in an infinite loop, as eventual degradation requires end-of-life treatment.  

The complexity of these cycles of reuses and substitution of products results in accounting difficulties. Ensuring robust means of evaluating the climate impact of circularity measures would allow for green claims to be accurate and promote real emission reduction pathways. 

Publications related to focus area

All publications

The people involved

Dr. Allanah Paul

CDR Research & Technology Advisor

Mark Preston Aragonès

Senior Policy Manager, Carbon Accounting

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