Gaining sustainable development through circular economy

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Since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, adopted by world leaders at a United Nations summit in September 2015, officially kicked off on January 1, 2016, many countries have been, briskly and aggressively, applying feasible strategies to achieve the target.

For those countries, they are convinced that, achieving the target is the surest way to secure the wellbeing of the present and future generations. For example, countries in Europe have adopted circular economy, a concept which resources are used, as long as it is relevant, extracting the maximum value from them to regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

Europe has even gone further to ensure that resources are used in a more sustainable way. Guided by the European Commission, an ambitious new circular economy package has been introduced to propel businesses and consumers to make the transition to a stronger circular economy. The package, intended to close the loop of product lifecycles, applies recycling and re-using to yield greater benefits for the environment and the economy, the two main pillars of circular economy.

Circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose), which has been found to lack solutions to challenges in the economy and the environment, in particular, and the society, generally. Experts have discovered that, the traditional linear economy discourages sustainable development and facilitates poverty. For now, the best solution to the challenges is circular economy.

In Finland, where I recently visited by courtesy of the Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs and participated in the just-ended World Circular Economy Forum 2017 (WCEF 2017) in Helsinki, policy makers, the business community, the academia and the society, in general, have developed an unquenchable passion for practicing circular economy, and this has put the country on course to achieve SDG 2030, and ensure prosperity for its people.

The event, organised by Sitra, a public fund aimed at building a sustainable wellbeing of the Finnish people, formed part of activities marking the celebration of Finland’s 100th anniversary and the World Environment Day, which fell on June 5. It attracted about 1,500 specialists — the world’s top business leaders, policymakers, researchers and innovators — from over 90 countries to Helsinki to brainstorm on the world’s best circular economy solutions in which business and the environment go hand in hand.

Front view of Neste Kilpilahti Refinery

Front view of Neste Kilpilahti Refinery

At the forum, participants had the chance to share thoughts and interact with high-profile persons such as Mikko Kosonen, President of Sitra, Kimmo Tiilikainen, Finland’s Minister for Housing, Energy and the Environment, Jan Vapaavuori, Vice President of European Investment Bank, Tadahiko Ito, Japan’s Minister of the Environment, Janez Potocnik, Co-chair of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) International Resources Panel, Ibrahim Thiaw, UNEP Deputy Executive Director and Assistant-Secretary-General of United Nations, and Achim Steiner Director, Oxford Martin School and former UNEP Executive Director, and many more inspirational thought leaders.

Matti Vanhanen, former Prime Minister of Finland and Chairman of Sitra’s Board of Directors, set the tone for the forum, and established the mood and character for the occasion, when he said: “By moving towards the circular economy, businesses can capture significant benefits, including increased growth, competitive advantage, cost reduction, reduced energy consumption and increased supply chain security.”

In addition, he encouraged the business representatives at the meeting to be forerunners of sustainable development and not wait for governments to take the initiative, urging them to act with urgency.

Mr. Thiaw, an expert in sustainable development, environmental governance and natural resource management, postulated that the change to a circular economy will have three major themes: big winners, big data and big losers. “The big winners will be those who can best use new techniques and solutions; big data, represents technology, which will play a major role, and big losers, where parts of the world are awash in the trade from old electronic waste. Other areas are flooded with old garments which are reused but devastate traditional textile companies,” he explained.

The Kenyan-born diplomat who has distinguished himself in the development and implementation of large scale, global environmental programmes and projects revealed that, “Pollution kills 36,000 people daily and causes or amplifies conflicts,” and stressed that, “regulation is the key to the solution,” an assertion shared by Finland’s Minister of Environment, Kimmo Tiilikainen, when I interacted with him at the forum.

The visit enabled me to experience Finland’s own inspirational story as a global leader as they put the circular economy into practice and deliver concrete benefits across all sectors of business and society. Among the facilities I toured were Neste Kilpilahti refinery area, where the world’s largest advanced biofuel and biochemicals are produced from waste and residues, and Vantaan Energia plant, which turns waste to energy to serve Helsinki and its environs.

In fact, the country has the technological solutions to turn every waste generated in the system into assorted raw material for production. While some companies play the dual role of turning waste to raw materials and use them to manufacture quality products, others only turn waste to raw material for other companies to buy for production; even waste food is turned to eatables by some restaurants. Incredible!

This is a country which put large amount of resources into research on waste and residue raw material. They have a saying that, “one’s waste is valuable to another.” According to the Environmental Performance Index, Finland is the greenest country in the world; therefore, Ghana has a lot to learn from them. For instance, government can go into a deal with its Finnish counterpart to transfer their technology through public private partnerships to save our polluted environment and curb challenges in other sectors, too, while making our cherished One-District-One-Factory a reality and beneficial to current and future generations.

The SDGs otherwise known as Global Goals, aim at going further to end all forms of poverty. The goals call for action by all countries – rich, middle-income and lower income — to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.

It implies that, by 2030 the world is expected to be free from poverty, and record a resilient economy and a vibrant society. Needs such as health, education, social protection, and job opportunities should be adequately available, while climate change and environmental protection is addressed with urgency and with precision, and ultimately guaranteeing the wellbeing of society.

The world no more perceives sustainable development as only economic growth, but, also, one that takes care of society and the environment, to sustain both the present and future generations. Impliedly, the new perception of sustainable development is an admission of inadequate attention given to other key sectors, in our quest to attain economic advancement.

This buttresses the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which states that, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The report further states that, “…the goals of economic and social development must be defined in terms of sustainability in all countries … Interpretations will vary, but must share certain general features and must flow from a consensus on the basic concept of sustainable development and on a broad strategic framework for achieving it.”

Since January 1, 2016, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as the lead UN development agency, has been tasked to use its vast experience and expertise to drive progress and help support countries on the path to sustainable development. The UNDP is mandated to guide all countries to mobilise efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. It is also to ensure that no country is left behind on the path to sustainable development.

Interestingly, a recent research done by Alliance for Development (AFD), a not-for-profit NGO that focuses on sustainable development worldwide, suggests that Ghana is not fully prepared for SDG programme due to some constraints, particular our inability to move away from linear economy.

Perhaps, that is the reason why the AFD report titled, “Ghana and Sustainable Development: Restoring the Present, Securing the Future”, said: “Ghana’s sustainable development is treacherously negatively skewed and all stakeholders, especially the people, institutions and civil society organisations of the country, must rise up to the challenge.”

The report, however said that, “The post 2015 consultations and global development agenda …provides an opportunity for Ghana (and other developing countries especially) to strategise and position themselves to address the lapses in the national development agenda and to champion the cause of restoring the present whiles securing the future.”

Undoubted, the research findings are reflection of the challenges confronting the country’s economic development, social inclusion, environmental sustainability and good governance (rule of law), which are the four dimensional concept of sustainable development that need to be tackled with urgency to enable Ghana to achieve SDG 2030, and safeguard the present and future generations.

If at this stage of Ghana’s development the country is unable to reduce environmental challenges to the barest minimum with all its fine regulations, and making waste generation an insurmountable issue; destroying our river bodies and fertile lands with irresponsible mining, and polluting our surroundings with lethal liquid waste and mountains of refuse facilitated by indiscriminately dumping, then only a miracle can help us to attain the global goal.

Achim Steiner, one of the prime forces behind the creation and adoption of the UN development goals, however, gave a note of optimism at the forum, saying, “This pessimistic outlook is misguided. Instead, we have a great opportunity in front of us …Economies which destroy resources create alienated people …We need to change what we believe about development. We used to think we could develop economically, then develop socially, and then finally we could fix all the harm we have done. We need to change our systems and ways of thinking. This is a shared development agenda for the first time in history. Think of all the jobs we will create and the social problems we will eliminate. We live in a moment of great opportunity.”

In other words, Steiner is saying that, Ghana can change and improve its systems, if we revolutionise our thinking; share ideas with countries such as Finland, fine-tune our perception of sustainable development and work aggressively towards attaining the SDG 2030 target, to secure the wellbeing of the present and future generations.


By Emmanuel Amponsah

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