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How a circular economy can help the Arctic and the Earth

14 October 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A Green and Just Recovery. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

After the warmest winter on record, the northern sun returned to shine on a different world this summer, where both the stability of the permafrost and the material flows over it had been disrupted. For many of us, the words resilience and scarcity gained tangible meanings. But as Kari Herlevi and Tim Forslund point out, the boundaries imposed by nature have always been more tangible in the Arctic—and no place on Earth now appears more at odds with our dated economic system.

The exploitation has gone on for decades, and most of what is below us still remains unexplored. From the air it is hard to suspect that there is a large oil spill at least twice the size of Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

This excerpt describes a scene in northern Russia. You might assume it refers to this year’s massive oil spill in Norilsk. But actually, it’s taken from Ajunngilaq, a book by Magnus Elander and Staffan Widstrand that recounts the 1994 oil pipeline disaster in the Russian Republic of Komi.

For a long time, we have seen the Arctic as an endless expanse of wilderness and riches. In reality, however, most resources are finite, the few have benefitted at the expense of the many, and the Arctic’s ecosystems are among the world’s most fragile. Our understanding of and engagement with this complex region needs to evolve if we hope to have a post-COVID-recovery that lets us move toward a world where we are not overshooting our planetary boundaries.

It is important that we clean up polluting processes. But more than that, We need to go beyond “doing less bad” and address the root causes that drive these processes. We need to fundamentally redesign our global economic system.

The extraction and processing of materials, fuels and food today—many of them finite and toxic—account for half of all global greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress. Improved energy efficiency and renewable energy will play a central role, but as part of creating systemic change, we need to consume less, and in smarter ways. We need new rules of the game.

The post-COVID recovery presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can choose to do nothing more than plug the holes in a faulty system, or we can reset the game altogether by building a more resilient economy—one that is more effective and less wasteful.

Solving multiple crises and learning from nature

A circular economy has the potential to help us solve multiple crises at once. Besides minimizing our dependence on finite resources, it is a powerful tool for mitigating the climate crisis. This is especially important for the Arctic, where the impacts have been felt earlier and more keenly than anywhere else. During Finland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2017 to 2019, climate mitigation and adaptation were key areas of focus.

In a circular economy, the focus shifts to keeping existing items in use and designing new ones in ways that avoid creating waste in the first place. We can do this by learning from nature, where there is no waste—only food for other organisms. Such thinking has underpinned industrial ecosystems in Kemi-Tornio in northern Finland.

For example, trains have been designed to use 15 per cent less electricity by emulating the kingfisher’s streamlined body. And in August, a study demonstrated how new materials can be developed for the aerospace and sports industries by studying the dactyl club of the mantis shrimp—a prey conquering appendage made of a composite material that grows tougher with time and use. Like a form of insurance, diversity builds resilience, as exemplified by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Getting more from less and exploring the Arctic's potential

Besides taking lessons from nature, the circular economy helps us get more from less. Careful design, repair, sharing and reuse are hardly novel concepts in the Arctic, where many communities are literally islands apart. However, marrying tried-and-true practices with new digital technologies would allow us to unlock more value from our existing assets by facilitating exchange and rethinking whether there are smarter solutions than owning all our products. The COVID-19 crisis has challenged us to think beyond what we want and focus instead on what we need.

In few places are the consequences of our brittle and extractive economic system more evident than in the Arctic. Fortunately, the same can be said for the solutions hidden within the region’s unique natural assets. These hold enormous potential when coupled with a deeper understanding of how to make the most of our existing resources. More thought is needed to understand what the circular economy could mean for the northernmost parts of our world, and how a more active exchange of circular solutions in the Arctic could benefit both the region and the planet at large.

KARI HERLEVI and TIM FORSLUND work with Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, where they help to advance the global transition to a circular economy.