circular economy politics sustainability

2020 Conservatives talk circular economy

2020-CIt’s been a rather depressing week in British politics, as climate sceptic politicians make snap decisions on natural disasters that the MET office tell us have a major climate factor. Not all Conservatives are in that leaky boat however.

Last week I caught up with some downloads from the Legatum Institute and the 2020 group of Conservatives, a modernising force within the party. I’m not going to critique everything I read, but it is encouraging to see calls for a green economy from within the Tory party.

I was particularly interested to read ‘Sweating our assets’, a report on improving the efficiency of Britain’s economy. It’s all about growth and the ‘global race’ of course, but it is the first time I’ve seen politicians grapple seriously with the idea of a circular economy. The paper envisions a new wave of products ‘remade in Britain’, and imagines an industrial policy for circularity. It argues that DEFRA should scrap the word ‘waste’ from its lexicon and just talk about ‘resources’. They even go so far as to suggest banning landfill, and that councils should monetise their waste streams, as I’ve written about before. Government responsibility for waste could move to the business department to make sure everyone understands it as an asset.

In order to measure the efficiency and profitability of the economy rather than just raw activity, they also call for “metrics that can help differentiate from good and ‘less good’ GDP.” (No bad GDP, I note – just ‘less good’) How about measuring value added through energy saved, they wonder, or value added through resources re-used?

As I was describing recently, resources are increasingly expensive, and 2020 recognise this. “During the 20th century progressively cheaper resources underpinned global economic growth… this era appears to have come to an end.” Instead, British industry need to divert waste back into productive use and pursue materials productivity as well as labour productivity. “Moving to a more circular UK economy has the potential to increase the UK’s net exports by more than £20 billion and reduce business costs by over £50 billion a year, so the reuse of resources can enhance economic profitability, while lowering balance of payments deficits and expensive externalities.”

Knowing that their audience is other Tories, the 20/20 group frame their arguments in almost entirely economic terms. “Recycling is being driven by an environmental agenda, rather than as a business opportunity” they say. Their vision for a modern economy is not about ‘saving the planet’, but creating efficiency and improving competitiveness.

That’s not enough, but one step at a time. If the alternative is denial, prevarication and a futile insistence on business as usual, I’ll settle for that. I’m hoping that 2020 get an audience for their arguments and that circular economy ideas will start to filter into the Conservative Party and their policies. As they do so, the other parties will have to start talking about it too, and we’ll have a propoer discussion about a sustainable material economy on our hands.

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