Consume less, recycle more to meet climate targets, top UN official urges countries

Olga Algayerova, executive secretary of the UNECE, speaking during a conference at the UN in Geneva, February 2020. (KEYSTONE/Martial Trezzini)

The United Nations’  Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) will this week urge its 56 member countries to urgently step up their commitments to creating circular economies that reuse resources and cut back on unsustainable consumption.

In an interview with Geneva Solutions ahead of the commission’s upcoming biannual session, Olga Algayerova, executive secretary of the UNECE, said “a paradigm shift” was needed to move away from the “disposable mass consumption model” that has prevailed for decades.

In this so-called linear, “take, make, waste” approach, raw materials are turned into products and bought by consumers only to be ultimately thrown away.

To reduce waste and curb planet-warming emissions, economies need to adopt “circular” policies of reusing and recycling, she said, speaking from her office at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva. “This means... adopting a life-cycle approach for all products, ending programmed obsolescence, and more profoundly redefining almost all business models.”

Some 100 billion tonnes of materials - from minerals and metals to fossil fuels - are consumed each year, however, only 8.6 per cent is cycled back into the economy, according to a recent report by Amsterdam-based social enterprise Circle Economy.

In the UNECE region, which spans from North America to Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, the use of raw materials, including those in imported goods, rose by more than 17 per cent between 2000 and 2017, UN figures show.

“What we want in our commission session, is to motivate and encourage the region to adopt circular economy principles and to show the best examples.  We are a very pragmatic organisation,” said Algayerova, who has been at the helm of the UNECE since 2017. She previously served as permanent representative of Slovakia to international organisations in Vienna.

So far, climate initiatives and commitments such as the Paris Agreement have been focused on the energy sector as a means of reducing CO2 emissions. But Algayerova said that efforts need to go much further:  “It’s not only about making energy cleaner and reducing its carbon footprint, but it is about consuming less and better.”

“Circularity means introducing the concept of products’ entire life-cycle: reusing, remanufacturing, using recycled materials, and prolonging the life of products.  So it’s a much broader concept and we need to do both. We need to reduce  greenhouse gas emissions and make energy generation cleaner but we also need to address this material footprint globally,” she said.

This also means tackling carbon inequality, with developed countries taking responsibility for producing greater consumption emissions. According to Oxfam research, the richest 10 per cent of the world’s population produce over half of global carbon dioxide emissions. “We need to consider the social consequences of what we are doing and make it more equitable,” she said.

The 69th session of the commission, the highest institutional body of the UNECE, will be attended by ministers from its 56 regions and sets the organisation’s agenda for the next two years. It comes just ahead of Leaders Summit on Climate summoned by US President Biden and Earth Day on 22 April.

The focus of the UNECE session will be the shift to a circular economy and more responsible use of resources, with governments expected to announce new national pledges.

Several countries have already adopted roadmaps and policies; the most ambitious so far is the European Commission’s circular economy action plan, which was unveiled last year and aims to halve its waste by 2030. A key part of the European green deal, it sets out a number of initiatives for tackling waste in areas like textiles and packaging, prolonging the life of products such as electronic devices, and encouraging consumers to seek repairs.

So far, there is no internationally recognised definition of the circular economy or any unified methodology for comparing and monitoring activities across the region, Algayerova explained. “There is some standardisation needed.”

“If we can in the future based on our commission session -  because I hope to have 56 high-level political officials coming and delivering statements with their national commitments towards a circular economy - then based on that it gives us a strengthened mandate to really focus our work on this."

The UNECE’s work on circularity issues has already led to new rules and environmental standards being adopted in resource-heavy industries such building construction and car manufacturing.

For example, a UN regulation adopted at the UNECE in 2013 requires 85 per cent of new vehicles’ mass to be reusable or recyclable - affecting some one-quarter of all vehicles sold globally. However, more still needs to be done.

Algayerova said ultimately, the transition to a more circular economy will depend on the willpower of member states: "Ambition must be raised much stronger and higher and faster. Because there is no time to waste. We don't have another planet."