COVID-19 offers chance for global economy to ‘build back better’

Last modified January 7, 2021. Published December 9, 2020.
Animals wander by a pile of rubbish and garbage near the sea in Albania. (Antoine Giret, Unsplash)

Animals wander by a pile of rubbish and garbage near the sea in Albania. (Antoine Giret, Unsplash)

Recovery from the coronavirus pandemic offers the world a unique opportunity to replace a linear economic model with a more circular framework, enhancing resilience and sustainability, according to study by nearly a dozen researchers.

The paper, set to be published in the January edition of Resources, Conservation and Recycling, explores the potential benefits of governments integrating circular economic principles, focusing on eliminating waste and reusing products and materials, into their recovery plans. 

Traditionally, the global economy has operated under linear economic principles, in which resources are used to make a product that is disposed of at the end of its life. 

Although most research has focused on negative social, economic and governmental impacts of COVID-19 -- for good reason -- the paper’s authors looked at environmental benefits from the pandemic, such as reduced energy consumption, environmental noise and air pollution, as a starting point for their work. 

Even with much of the world stuck at home, carbon emissions fell by only 8%, which is not enough of a reduction to combat climate change, said Taofeeq Ibn-Mohammed, assistant professor and head of sustainability research at WMG at the University of Warwick, who led the research. Without structural shifts, the drop is also unsustainable over the long term, he said.

“It is not a result of systemic change in government policy or the way we do things,” he said. “It was imposed on us, but that’s not what we want. Nobody wants COVID-19 to continue forever.”

Governments now have a window to “build back better” by adopting circular principles, he said, referencing a slogan used in the U.K.’s coronavirus recovery plan and by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

Under circular economic principles, food can be grown on smaller urban farms closer to where it will be consumed; repair and refurbishment can be prioritized over disposal or recycling; and plastics can be replaced with biodegradable materials in many situations.

The digital economy can also be used for forecasting and predictions meant to increase the lifespan of certain tools and technologies, Ibn-Mohammed said. For example, a washing machine could alert the manufacturer that a part needs to be replaced before the user notices.

“It’s also to prevent that particular disaster in terms of maintenance costs, and it elongates the lifespan of that particular machine,” he said. Several countries, particularly in Europe, had begun implementing circular economic strategies prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 has “led to a lot of reawakening” about the need for greater sustainability, Ibn-Mohammed said. 

However, any global circular economic framework shouldn’t be a “one-size-fits-all,” and implementation must be done on a sector-by-sector basis.

“The kind of circular economy strategy you’ll be thinking of in the steel sector is going to be different in the manufacturing sector, is going to be different in the food sector,” he said.“But the ultimate thing is that whatever strategy you’re doing, it must be able to demonstrate the benefits in terms of costs, in terms of environmental and CO2 emission savings and in terms of how has it benefited mankind in terms of improving our quality of life.”

Economists and governments developing new models should also account for human behavior, which could lead to complications, he said. For instance, many individuals prefer to own their own automobiles, but cars in the U.K, Europe and the U.S. remain parked 96% of the time.

Combating climate change doesn’t necessarily require people to dramatically change their lives or use less energy, Ibn-Mohammed said. In their paper, the researchers said the world should use more energy, not less, to drive economic activity -- with greater efficiency.

“Just make sure the energy you’re consuming is from a clean source,” Ibn-Mohammed said. “So overall, this thing is all about maintaining optimal balance between the quality of life that we want to live and the environmental burden that our planet can cope with.”

Governments also should avoid exporting pollution to another country, such as China, to clean up some parts of the world at the expense of others.

“China is still on this planet,” he said. Although direct effects could be isolated to China, but might be felt in Bangladesh, impacts “might be felt in Angola, because we’re all part of the same universe.”

Ibn-Mohammed said he was inspired to write the paper shortly after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March and news outlets reported on the decline of pollution as a result of stay-at-home orders.

In mid-May, he discovered that Resources, Conservation and Recycling was planning for a special issue on COVID-19, with a deadline of May 30. Working around the clock, Ibn-Mohammed said, he and his colleagues from the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Nigeria, Japan and the United Arab Emirates managed to submit their paper on time — only for it to be rejected at the beginning of July.

After some back-and-forth, however, Ibn-Mohammed convinced the editors to allow him to rework and resubmit the paper in September, shortly after which it was accepted for publication.

The effort was taxing for the researchers, as well as for their loved ones on the home front. But all were pleased with the result, Ibn-Mohammed said.

“It led to slight arguments between me and my wife, because I was just glued to my computer,” he said. “I said to her, ‘Don’t worry. … The time will come for resting and watching Netflix together. But let me get this paper out."

The study “A critical analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on the global economy and
ecosystems and opportunities for circular economy strategies” was published Sept. 21, 2020, inResources, Conservation and Recycling. It was was authored by Taofeeq Ibn-Mohammed, WMG at The University of Warwick; Khameel Mustapha, University of Nottingham; Janet Godsell, WMG; Zulfikar Adamu, London South Bank University; Kazeem Alasinrin Babatunde, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Al-Hikmah University; Damilare Akintade, University of Nottingham; Adolf Acquaye, University of Kent; Hidemichi Fujii, Kyushu University; Malick Mody Ndiaye, American University of Sharjah; Fred Amofa Yamoah, Birkbeck University of London; and S.C. Lenny Koh, The University of Sheffield.

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