This article outlines the impacts of urban areas on biodiversity and demonstrates how localizing the circular economy can help cities in preserving and enhancing biodiversity. It also shares best practices from Turku (Finland), Guelph (Canada), and Delhi (India) in prioritizing regenerative processes and primary resources, while eliminating waste and pollutants such as single-use plastics.
The linear economic model relies on a continuous process of extraction and processing of natural resources, which is responsible for more than 90 percent of biodiversity loss. This take-make-waste model is contributing to all drivers of biodiversity loss, from land and sea use change, to ecosystem exploitation and to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Addressing biodiversity loss requires transformative action at all levels and across all sectors. Most importantly, it necessitates a systemic shift to a circular economy that safeguards biodiversity. The circular transition involves prioritizing regenerative resources, reducing the demand for primary resources and avoiding the generation of pollution and waste
With urban areas acting as the consumption centers of our world’s resources, local governments play an important role in this transformation. In fact, they are in a unique position to drive, catalyze and enable circular economy interventions in support of biodiversity protection and regeneration. Critically, cities are also dependent on biodiversity for sustaining the social, economic and environmental well-being of their residents which makes it all the more important for them to be at the forefront of the circular transition.
The recently published briefing sheet City-level circular economy interventions to protect and enhance biodiversity outlines the ways in which urban areas are currently impacting biodiversity and demonstrates how localizing the circular economy can help cities to preserve and enhance biodiversity both within and beyond their jurisdiction.
Here are three ways circular cities can help address the biodiversity crisis.
1) Prioritizing regenerative resources and processes
Circular cities prioritize actions that restore and protect ecosystems, promote nature-based solutions and prioritize resources to power circular systems. This ensures the ecosystems urban and economic systems rely on can continue to deliver ecosystem services and that circular systems are resilient and sustainable.
Best practice: Turku´s circular water systems sources water regeneratively
In 2009, Turku (Finland) joined forces with nine neighboring municipalities to invest in circular water and wastewater management infrastructure that minimize nutrient pollution, deliver heat for district heating purposes and facilitate sludge recovery. Upstream, the municipalities wanted to ensure groundwater reserves would be protected. For this reason, the public company Turku Region Water Ltd. has implemented an innovative groundwater replenishment technique called Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). This technique recharges an aquifer using either surface or underground recharge techniques and thereby offers a natural means of producing high-quality water and increasing the yields of the aquifer. The MAR method enables the groundwater levels of the aquifer to be restored to their natural levels. Part of the electricity needed in the pretreatment of the river water that is used for infiltration is produced by 1,350 solar panels.
2) Decreasing demand for primary resources
About 75 percent of the world’s natural resource consumption takes place in cities and almost 80 percent of all food is consumed by urban residents. Between 2010 and 2050, cities’ material consumption is projected to more than double from 40 to 90 billion tonnes.
Circular cities reduce demand for primary resources by using what already exists, circulating products and materials for as long and at the highest value as possible, and designing consumption- and production models for resource efficiency. These principles can be applied to a variety of resource and materials flows.
Best practice: Guelph supports greywater use and rainwater harvesting at household level
The city of Guelph is one of the largest cities in Canada to rely primarily on groundwater for its water supply. For this reason, the city has long sought to conserve water through diverse initiatives. One of these initiatives is a rebates program to support the installation of greywater reuse and rainwater harvesting systems, which reduce demand on the groundwater supply by allowing homes and businesses to use water that would otherwise enter sewage or stormwater systems. The 35 households participating in this system have allowed Guelph to reduce its water consumption by 962,350 liters yearly and reduce its CO2 emissions by 490 kg per year.
3) Eliminating waste and pollutants
Urban areas generate half of the global waste with municipal waste levels expected to double by 2050. Where waste is not handled properly, it risks undermining biodiversity and ecosystem health, whether due to littering, runoff or landfills leaking pollutants into the natural environment. It is, for example, estimated that urban areas are responsible for 60 percent of marine plastic litter causing detrimental impacts to coastal and marine biodiversity
Circular cities eliminate waste and pollution by improving design and/or ensuring waste streams are safely revitalized, thereby making sure waste and pollution do not materialize in the production and consumption cycle. This can be done through a variety of city-level measures such as incentivizing the design of production methods that minimize waste, regulating the consumption of disposable items or investing in closed-loop infrastructure.
Best practice: Phasing out single-use plastics in Delhi
A massive 60 percent of the plastic waste in the oceans is estimated to come from India. In Delhi, the open burning of plastic waste is causing major health and environmental challenges. The Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi adopted the “Comprehensive Action Plan for Elimination of Identified Single-Use Plastic” in December 2021. The Action Plan organizes a three-step phase-out of single-use plastic such as bags, cutlery, films, banners and wrappers, which is set to be completed by the end of 2022. In addition, incentives for the uptake of single-use plastics alternatives and a scheme for the promotion of high-value plastics recycling technologies will be implemented.
To support a shift to consumption and production patterns that work with rather than against nature, cities need to combine the principles outlined above to address impacts all along the take-make-waste model. This is a challenging task that can only succeed if cities learn from and build on each other’s successes. Access ICLEI´s briefing sheet City-level circular economy interventions to protect and enhance biodiversity for practical examples of how this can be done in practice or watch the recordings of our webinar Localizing biodiversity through the circular economy to learn more about best practices from the ICLEI network.