China is supposedly developing its own circular economy so I was interested to hear that the country has recently established a measurement tool to track progress in this field – a national circular economy evaluation index.
Developed by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, this index provides a measure of circularity by tracking various indicators based on the consumption of resource inputs such as water, energy and organic/non-organic materials. It also monitors key outputs – waste arisings, wastewater discharge, air pollutant emissions, and so forth.
Time will tell, but I suspect what China has formulated here is a crude, but useful, set of parameters. At least it’s a starting point. Given that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has recently launched what it believes is the world’s first set of metric indicators for measuring circularity, it will be interesting to see how the two methodologies compare.
What China is seeking to do is to redirect its ground-level resource flows to follow the direction of policy travel. It’s worth noting that the country first started legislating in this space in 2008 – a key aim of its circular economy promotion law is to decouple economic growth from resource consumption and industrial toxicity. This new evaluation index appears to give the law some legs.
Look deeper into the Chinese version of the circular economy and it becomes quite fascinating. It is very centralised, with a top-down approach. Interventionist levers are favoured to control just how many resources are consumed, and how much waste is generated.
Corporate polluters now face large fines and extended producer responsibility is taken very seriously. Meanwhile the Chinese people have been told to “adopt a low-carbon and frugal lifestyle and perform environmental protection duties”. Among other things, they are legally obliged to recycle their waste.
This exercise of authority and direction appears to be in direct conflict with Europe’s more subtle, market-based approach towards building a circular economy. Admittedly, it’s harder legislating for a cluster of member states than it is one nation, but it would appear that the revised European circular economy package due out later this year will take a softer, more concessionary view towards any targets set.
As for China, it wants to plug in circularity at every level – local, regional and national. Like many countries, its regional development is unbalanced, so scaling up pilot work will be the obvious route forward here. There are reports that China intends to launch 100 circular economy pilot projects across its cities and industrial parks, with various companies chosen as circular demonstrators to help ignite some industrial symbiosis.
Read a few research papers, and the plans seem remarkably detailed. They also seem pretty well interconnected. A top-down chain of command looking to build circularity from the bottom-up. Great idea. But is it? China has the potential to build the world’s biggest circular economy, true enough. But if it succeeds, will it just ultimately end up closing the loop in on itself? Where might that leave other countries looking to go circular?
There’s a lot to be said for having first-mover advantage, but it often becomes competitive. I believe in a truly global circular economy – one that thrives on open platforms and open loops. One without borders, basically. I don’t know if China’s intended model fits that vision. Like most things, it’s a case of wait and see.