A Q&A with Professor Peter Hopkinson
10 January 2022
Professor Peter Hopkinson is Co-Director of the UK Research and Innovation Council’s National Interdisciplinary Research Programme and the Exeter Centre for Circular Economy at the University of Exeter Business School. He also works with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a Global Pioneer for Circular Economy and established the world’s first MBA on the subject. He leads a Global Masterclass for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on Implementing the Circular economy.
Why is transitioning towards a Circular Economy so important in the battle against climate change?
A significant percentage of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from our industrial economies come from the production and consumption of products and materials1. In the UK, many of our GHG emissions have been exported to other countries as a result of offshoring. These countries often have far higher dependency on fossil fuels, hence when we import goods from other countries, we are contributing to global GHGs even if they are not accounted for in our current carbon reporting. The principles of a circular economy are designed to increase resource productivity, drive down waste and emissions of all types, especially GHGs and rebuild natural capital which serves to sequester carbon.
Are governments doing enough to encourage this transition?
In a word, no. Many are beginning to realise the tremendous economic opportunity and multiple benefits of such a transition, but there is still a long way to go to turn around the legacy of the past decades of linear economy regulation, investment and policy initiatives. Countries such as Finland have created an overarching national Circular Economy strategy, and the EU Circular Economy policy package is a step in the right direction. Policy levers such as extended producer responsibility, to pass the full environmental and climate change impact onto producers – the ‘polluter pays’ concept – can make a big difference. Some countries have set carbon taxes at over $100 per tonne, which are necessary to shift carbon-intensive production and consumption patterns that have become habituated over the past decades. But even these will not be enough, and if we are to reach zero carbon and accelerate a future circular economy, we need systemic innovation, systemic finance initiatives and a technological and social innovation revolution akin to previous industrial revolutions.
"COP26 WILL BE A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO FOCUS ON CLIMATE CHANGE, TAKE LESSONS FROM COVID AS A SYSTEM SHOCK AND ADDRESS THE NEED TO BUILD RESILIENCE BACK INTO OUR ECONOMIES AND SOCIAL SYSTEMS."
How can richer countries set an example to developing nations?
By transforming the carbon intensity of our economy, stopping offshoring carbon emissions and taking full responsibility for the emissions associated with UK final demand. We must support not just developing, but also emerging and many other economies with solutions and mechanisms to avoid the carbon-intensive pathways we have followed, without denying their citizens the right to raised standards of living.
In November 2021, the UK will host the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. Do you hold out much hope that firm global commitments will be made?
I wake up a pessimist but tend to go to bed an optimist. I think there is growing realisation that we have to act and reach firm commitments. There are signs this might happen, but we shouldn’t pin everything on a single event. There is a lot of positive change and increasing awareness that zero carbon can be a source of economic opportunity by decoupling resource throughput from economic growth. It isn’t easy, but we know that change is inevitable – how it comes about, at what speed and how we manage the transition is an endless source of debate.
Has Covid-19 focused the minds of policymakers on solving big issues like climate change?
I would like to think it has had some impact. Just from the point of view of national security, the pandemic has revealed the lack of resilience in global supply chains. How this translates into the action on climate change and the drive to return economic growth to pre-pandemic levels is an open question. COP26 will be a great opportunity to focus on climate change, take lessons from Covid as a system shock and address the need to build resilience back into our economies and social systems.
What are easy first steps that businesses could take to become more circular and reuse waste?
Look around for inspiration and evidence of those companies who are making the transition. We run a global masterclass three times a year designed to take businesses from any sector through a journey, showing how others are initiating and implementing the Circular Economy. Google, Philips, SAP, IKEA, Solvay, Renault, Ricoh and others are making the change – sometimes incrementally, sometimes transformationally. We would always propose a technique of value analysis to scan for value leakage via materials, assets and customers, and follow a simple sequence of the Circular Economy value creation and capture modelling and piloting. This should involve multi-functional teams and partners and give them appropriate tools and resources to navigate some of the challenges they inevitably face.
What role can waste management and recycling companies play in enabling the Circular Economy?
In a circular economy waste and recycling companies will become resource recovery and re-use companies, using their know-how, infrastructure and capabilities to move away from ‘managing waste’ to working with upstream partners to unlock new sources of value from resources in the economy, far beyond their current single life cycle. They are therefore key enablers and have ability to integrate resource flows from multiple sources and create new partnerships within and across value creating ecosystems.