Why should we act urgently to transition away from a linear economy?

March 4, 2022

While the world has to secure enough resources to meet the needs of 10 billion people by 2050, the current linear economy not only fails to provide resources sustainably, but it also exacerbates the climate emergency, putting human life and the planet we rely on in jeopardy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of a climate emergency in its most recent 2022 report. Due to the growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms, and forest fires, certain countries may be entirely wiped out by climate change unless urgent action is taken.  In reality, with the current average global warming of 1.1 degrees C, these phenomena have been and are happening more often. In this context, the current linear economy is firmly steering us towards a 1.5 degree increase of global warming – the worst case of climate change – by increasing global emissions and depleting resources in the face of a growing population. So, what is a linear economy and how does it contribute to the worsening of the climate emergency? Let’s find out with Evergreen Labs.

The “Take-make-waste” pattern

The traditional linear economy is based on a recurrent “take-make-waste” pattern. This implies that raw materials are extracted and produced, then turned into a product and consumed until it is discarded, regardless of whether or not it can be reused or recycled. This economy defines value as manufacturing as many products as possible to generate profits, and the environment is viewed as an eternally free resource for human consumption. The economy generates a substantial amount of undesired, and often toxic, landfill waste while also adding to the shortage of raw resources. Every year, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste, with at least 33% of it not being managed in an environmentally safe way, while the current global economy is only 8.6% circular.

A child picks up trash in the midst of a large waste dump. Photo: Unsplash.

Why is a linear economy unsustainable?

  1.    Resource depletion

According to Michelini et al., the current linear socioeconomic system is defined by the destruction of the product at the end of its service life, which is one of the primary causes of severe resource depletion. This is understandable; given there has been a nearly 1:1 link between economic growth and the use of natural resources since the commencement of the first industrial revolution. According to UNEP, worldwide natural resource extraction has more than tripled since the 1970s, and by 2060, global material use might double to 190 billion tonnes (from 92 billion), while greenhouse gas emissions could rise by 43%. While increasing resource efficiency is beneficial, our present and predicted extraction rates are heavily driven by rising consumption and our reliance on single-use products and packaging derived from limited natural resources, such as fossil fuels. As a result, we would need the regeneration capacity of 1.75 Earths to provide the natural resources and ecological services required to sustain our present consumption patterns.

  1.    Biodiversity loss

Deforestation, agriculture, and mining that necessitate the extraction of raw materials are all harming our planet’s ecosystems. According to research conducted by the UN Environment, extraction––a crucial component of our linear economy––is blamed for biodiversity loss. As forests and swamps are destroyed for cropland that requires irrigation, land use change – mostly for agriculture – contributes to more than 80% of biodiversity loss and 85% of water stress. The IPCC 2022 report also stresses that even if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees C for a few decades, it will have significant and permanent consequences for ocean ecosystems and biodiversity. Moreover, the changing environment causes an increase in natural catastrophes and pollution, both of which endanger people’s lives. For example, the inhabitants of Mekong Delta Vietnam have suffered from drought and salt water intrusion as a result of the disastrous impacts of sea water seeping farther inland through rivers.

A farmer walks across her cracked field in Ben Tre Province, Mekong Delta, owing to severe drought. Photo: VnExpress.
  1.    Waste and pollution

Waste, at the end of a linear value chain, contributes directly to greenhouse gas emissions and our climatic issue. Almost 50% of the emissions that contribute to climate change are caused by the production and consumption of daily items. When freight transport emissions and energy usage in non-residential buildings are included in, the number jumps to 70% of total global emissions. Aside from taking up otherwise productive land, the waste pile exacerbates the issue by supporting bacteria that flourish in an oxygen-free environment. As the bacteria break down the waste, they emit carbon dioxide and methane, with methane being 84 times more effective as a global warming agent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years of its release. Today, the world generates more than 2 billion tons of solid waste, with that figure anticipated to rise to 3.4 billion tons by 2050. Global waste produced within our linear economy is made up of 44% food and organics, 17% paper, and 12% plastic––all of which may be useful in a circular economy.

  1.    Environmental injustice

According to the UN study, people in rich countries consume 9.8 tonnes of resources each year, the equivalent of two elephants, which is 13 times more than those in low-income countries. However, to meet the increased demand for consumption of a linear economy, the low-income group is being treated unequally. We are witnessing alarming issues such as underpaid and overworked labor, inadequate waste management in underprivileged communities, and political conflict due to resource exploitation. Notably, plastic pollution disproportionately affects vulnerable groups and communities who live near plastic production and disposal sites, leading to environmental injustice. The latest IPCC report warns us of how the climate crisis is impacting humans, especially the vulnerable groups, estimating that up to 3.6 million people are now highly vulnerable to climate change. Vulnerable population groups in the most vulnerable locations (especially in East, Central, and West Africa, South Asia, Micronesia and Melanesia, and Central America) require adaptation the most urgently. These regions face several issues, including high levels of poverty, a considerable number of people without access to essential services like water and sanitation, wealth and gender inequities, and governance challenges. Furthermore, the direct and indirect repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated inequalities throughout societies, increasing existing vulnerabilities to climate change and restricting vulnerable groups’ ability to adapt.

In the next articles, EGL will offer some ideas for moving away from the linear economy, as well as how we are experimenting with new, innovative, circular models in our venture studio.