A circular built environment: a castle in the air or a feasible future?

World Circular Economy Forum 2019, Helsinki, Tuesday 4 June 

Circular Economy in Construction – WCEF2019 parallel session

On Tuesday 4 June 2019, experts around the world gathered in Helsinki, Finland for the World Circular Economy Forum to discuss the economic potential of the circular built environment. About 400 attendees of the Circular Economy in Construction session were introduced Global characteristics of circularity in built environment as well as insights and future plans at a global level. 

Elisa Tonda from UN Environment facilitated the Circular Building session where after Martin Stuchtey’s keynote, Zeenat Niazi described the state of play and challenges in India, Jeremy Gibberd in Africa and Barbara Dewulf in Europe. Pictures by Pekka Huovila.

Being the largest consumer of natural resources, the built environment presents complex challenges in varying conditions across the globe. It also has a significant economic impact as circular processes provide business opportunities at different stages during the long building service life. According to Martin Stuchtey (Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Systemiq), the built environment is a key sector for the circular future. Greenhouse gasses and climate change can no longer be the only pressure point for circular economy. Construction materials are predicted to continue dominating material use in the future and to more than double in volume by 2060. For a circular system shift in the built environment, we need “entrepreneurial urban governance”. 

Zeenat Niazi (Vice President, Development Alternatives) showcased that while the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be using 80 billion tons of materials by 2050 with severe environmental and social impacts, the urbanization also creates potential for material recovery. Considering the high demand for new construction in Asian countries, there is significant potential in setting up circular systems. To be successful, circular economy policies in Asia require progressive public procurement, active data disclosure, systemic innovation, and regenerative systems. 

Circular economy offers more than environmental benefits for developing countries. Jeremy Gibberd (Director, South Africa) brought up that as 21 out of 30 of the world’s fastest growing cities are in Africa where a great percentage of the population is housed in informal settlements, circular construction takes place organically: informal economies have very little waste as everything gets reused. Most of the building regulation and legislative framework in Africa is still colonial and old-fashioned – circular economy approaches need enforcement that ensures quality and avoids waste. 

In Europe, the circular economy emphasis has long been on recycling. However, as Barbara Dewulf (Deputy Director General, Brussels Environment) explained, recycling creates significant loss of value and will not be enough in the future. Cities, being large enough to make a difference, can lead the way with circular approaches to built environment. As existing buildings do not match the needs of the future which results in huge vacancies, cities should promote flexibility in use and renovation, value, and life cycle thinking. This can be achieved by a systemic shift in changes in design, value definition and collaboration across all sectors. 

Together with Anders Wijkman (Chair, Climate-KIC and Circular Sweden) and Ilari Aho (Vice President, Uponor Group), the panelists of the session concluded that a lot of innovation and already available solutions need to be developed further to solve the puzzle. As societies will not remain the same for 100 years down the line, down cycling and enhancing recycling criteria are not the only solutions. If circular economy is the new objective, innovation must play a major role: making the move from linear to circular. Worldwide creation and maintenance of new sustainable environments based on design that still holds value after the first use is a challenge that requires collaboration in sharing information, tangible examples of best practices, and considering these aspects in public procurement. 

Watch the recording and get the presentations of this parallel session

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