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Report makes the climate case for circular economy

A new report from resources experts Zero Waste Scotland could have major implications for circular economy policy makers and decision takers worldwide.

15 Jun 15

The report, The Carbon Impacts of the Circular Economy, is one of the first studies of its kind to model the impact of circular economy strategies at a national level on greenhouse gas emissions.

It applies Zero Waste Scotland’s ground-breaking Carbon Metric, as well as other peer reviewed research, to quantify the potential carbon impacts of a more circular economy in Scotland, comparing a 2012 baseline with four different scenarios for 2050.

The results, presented using both territorial and consumption accounting methods, highlight the substantial carbon impacts of Scotland’s material consumption as well as providing strong evidence that moving towards a more circular economy could significantly reduce Scotland’s global carbon footprint while still providing long-term economic growth.

The report highlights that:

  1. Material consumption is responsible for over two thirds of Scotland’s carbon emissions.
  2. A more circular Scottish economy could reduce territorial emissions by 11 million tonnes CO2e per year by 2050 compared to BAU, while providing the potential for continued economic growth.
  3. Nearly 1 in every 5 tonnes of material flowing through the Scottish economy is waste.
  4. Regardless of carbon accounting methodology (territorial vs. consumption), achieving a more circular economy could help Scotland reduce its carbon emissions without sacrificing economic prosperity.

Iain Gulland, Chief Executive of Zero Waste Scotland, said:

“This report shows that a circular economy – where we move away from a ‘take, make and dispose’ society – could have a huge impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland. 

“There’s real momentum behind the circular economy with policy roadmaps in development both here in Scotland and at the European level.  This report adds further impetus to efforts to place the circular economy at the heart of mainstream economic and environmental policy.  Previous studies have indicated the considerable economic opportunities of a circular economy, but this is one of the first to clearly show it can help combat climate change and contribute to national and international agreements to reduce emissions.

“It’s also a valuable contribution to discussions about how we measure progress in the future.  International agreements on climate change have favoured territory-based accounting methods, but to truly understand our global impacts, it can be helpful to think instead about what we consume as a society, regardless of where it comes from, using consumption-based carbon accounting methods.”


  • The circular economy is an alternative to the dominant linear (‘take, make and dispose’) economic model, which uses smart product design, remanufacturing, repair, and reprocessing activities to keep products and materials circulating within the economy, thereby extracting maximum value from them.  By recirculating products rather than disposing of them after use, the circular economy retains product and material value and reduces demand for both raw resource inputs and waste disposal, two activities with high carbon impacts.   
  • The report modelled emissions impacts of four different scenarios for 2050 against a 2012 baseline.  The scenarios were:
    • Business as Usual (BAU) scenario – production and consumption remain at high levels, continuing on from current trends.
    • Resource Efficiency (RE) scenario – producers, retailers and other businesses reduce production impacts but consumers do not change their behaviours.
    • Limited Growth (LG) scenario – businesses fail to adapt their resource use meaning production impacts remain high but consumption is limited by poor economic growth from rising resource scarcity and costs. This scenario is both unlikely and undesirable however, it has been included to highlight the correlation between economic growth and emissions that is typical of a linear economy, and underscore how in a circular economy, economic growth and emissions reductions are both attainable.
    • Circular Economy (CE) scenario – both businesses and consumers embrace the benefits of altered design and new business models to adopt a more circular economy leading to a low material impact society.
  • The report draws on two different ways to measure the carbon impacts of economic activity – territorial accounting and consumption accountingTerritorial accounting, also known as producer-based accounting, centres on the idea of ‘producer responsibility’ – it only considers emissions produced within a region or country.  In contrast, consumption accounting is based on the idea of ‘consumer responsibility'; it includes all the emissions resulting from consumption.   The distinction between territorial and consumption accounting methods is important when thinking about the global problem of climate change. Using territorial accounting, a region’s carbon footprint can decrease without reducing global emissions, simply by ‘offshoring emissions’.  In contrast, consumption accounting includes all emissions resulting from consumption, regardless of where in the world they occur.  This guarantees any reduction in Scotland’s consumption emissions also reduces global emissions. 

Notes For Editors

  • Zero Waste Scotland is funded by the Scottish Government to support the delivery of its Zero Waste Plan and other low carbon and resource efficiency policy priorities.
  • Zero Waste Scotland is helping Scotland to become more efficient in its use of resources. As a facilitator and enabler of change, we help to reduce waste, increase energy efficiency and promote responsible water use – all as part of a journey towards a low-carbon, sustainable economy.
  • More information on all Zero Waste Scotland’s programmes can be found at www.zerowastescotland.org.uk . You can also keep up to date with the latest from Zero Waste Scotland though via our social media channels - Twitter | Facebook | Google Plus | LinkedIn
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