The conclusion from COP27 is inescapable: it is “all hands-on deck” to fight climate change. Despite our best efforts, the United Nations says we are still careening towards disaster. The financial sector needs to step up.
Until now, investors have, understandably, focused on directing capital towards climate strategies focused largely on renewables. But a singular focus on energy transition alone won’t solve our climate crisis.
According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, moving to renewable energy can only address 55% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is necessary, but insufficient. The circular economy offers the potential to tackle the remaining 45%. Adopting a circular economy framework in five key areas – steel, plastic, aluminum, cement, and food could achieve a reduction totaling 9.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2050.
Yet the need to develop a circular economy in these critical areas is still not getting the attention it deserves. With respect to plastics, COP27 only addressed this topic through the lens of multilateral cooperation and the need to reduce plastic pollution. But as I have written previously (and often!), we need to be attacking the problem on multiple fronts if we have any hope of attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Consensus is building to prioritize the development of a circular economy for plastic waste
With mounting pressure to limit global warming to 1.5C as urged in the 2021 Sixth Assessment Report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, improving waste management systems appears as the new frontier to drastically curb emissions.
In a November 2022 report by Delterra, “The Promising Climate Solution That No One Is Talking About: Waste and its Role in Climate Change, “plastic use and waste is expected to triple by 2060, contributing to climate change as well as other environmental issues.”Delterra further found that emissions from plastic waste are projected to reach 2.6 billion tons CO2 in the coming decades, equivalent to the annual energy use of 325 million homes. Based on current disposal habits, the full life cycle of plastic could contribute up to 15% of global GHG emissions by 2050.
Fortunately, we now also know that the circular economy represents a still largely untapped opportunity to solve this important contributor to climate change. Thanks to a new tool called PLACES – Plastic Lifecycle Assessment Calculator for the Environment and Society, developed by The Circulate Initiative and inspired by the US EPA’s WARM tool, we can also, for the first time, quantify the positive climate impacts of plastic mitigation solutions in high growth markets. PLACES is designed specifically for use in Asia and offers the ability to assess the climate impact of current waste management practices in Asia, from open burning to recycling.
The positive climate impacts of this new tool could be enormous. It is estimated that transitioning to a circular economy can reduce GHG emissions globally by 10 billion tons a year by 2050. Using the underlying analysis behind PLACES, my firm found that almost 150 million tons of GHG would be avoided if 100 percent of plastic leakage in India and Indonesia was prevented by 2030. This is equivalent to shutting down 40 coal-fired power plants.
The Case for Accelerating Investment at the Nexus of Plastic Waste and Climate Change
Developing the circular economy for plastic waste calls for massive investment in solutions to address the problem. The good news is that investors are starting to take notice of the causal effects of plastic waste on climate change.
I recently spent a couple of days at EnVest, a convening of environmental-focused investors, and was heartened to see that climate investors are currently taking a more intersectional lens to climate investing. This group of the most sophisticated investors in the space is thinking beyond renewables (for reasons I just stated) and becoming more aware of the opportunities related to other areas, including advancing the circular economy for plastics.
But how do we get more investors into this space? A common challenge for climate investors is that waste management and recycling are complex sectors that remain pretty far outside their wheelhouse. My own sense from conversations with these types of investors is that they need specialists and experts to help them get comfortable with how to proceed. So, we need more funds and investment firms with this knowledge to help close these gaps of uncertainty for climate investors so we can crowd in more capital to existing and new solutions.
Overall, this should be encouraging news for those working to solve the plastic waste crisis. I believe we are at a new inflection point when it comes to climate investing, one where we can finally turn our attention towards investing in solutions that target plastic waste as a significant driver of climate pollution.
The bottom line is that to solve climate change, we need to make plastic waste a bigger part of the climate conversation among impact investors. And this means that climate finance and circular plastic investing are going to need to come together to address the climate crisis in a comprehensive way. Only by looking beyond renewables and closing the gaps and improving the production of materials like plastics, aluminum and so on can we develop the kind of circular economy we need to solve both the climate and plastic pollution problems.