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Circular economy in the Nordic region – on the right path?

How do we interpret policy effectiveness for a circular economy in the Nordic region? “Measuring a city’s relationship to its environment is complex and challenging and ‘eco-cities’ are not easily compared,” writes Hayley Birch in an article for the Guardian.  Without a uniform set of measurements that is widely agreed upon,  “perhaps we’re making this too complicated—why not stop referring to ‘green-ness’ as something measurable and focus on the details we’re interested in…like cleanest air or lowest greenhouse emissions?” Birch points out.

During the current pioneering phase in the transition towards a circular economy, we can conceptualise progress better with a “systems” mindset, according to the Towards a Circular Economy reports. Systems thinking is the ability to understand how parts influence one another within a whole and the relationship of the whole to the parts is crucial as well.

In agreement with Birch’s sentiment, it is easier to identify individual signifiers of circular systems within a city or region than it is stamp on an overall label or assessment of the city’s “green-ness”. But as humans, we like to categorise things, so when we come across seemingly inconsistent features in a city, like policies and directives that publicly promote development towards a circular economy, while the region is also known for welcoming industries that, say, engage in mineral extraction, then we may get mixed signals from this government-business relationship.

The Internet of Things will play a role in making data collection easier and more accessible, ideally levelling the playing field for comparative analysis. However, the question still remains: if we can’t label a city because of varying inconsistencies of ‘circular-ness’ at this stage, then how do we interpret or categorise it?

The Nordic model gains global admiration for its accomplishments in public health, educational attainment and social well-being, Henrietta Moore writes, but the region as a whole falls very short when applying traditional metrics. In the WWF’s scale of ecological impact across carbon, grazing land, fishing ground, and forests making the “citizens of these countries-just like all nations in the global north-as consuming resources at a rate that would require several Earths to sustain.” But, are we using the tools used to evaluate improvement in a linear world? Does simplifying a complex situation in this way mislead us in suggesting that Scandinavian countries don’t necessarily “provide a desirable model”? That the individual discrepancies take away from the whole?

A 2014 report from the Nordic Council of Ministers addresses the region’s disadvantages immediately within the first section: “Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission rates per capita are relatively high by global standards in the Nordic region due to factors including the long, cold winters, long transportation distances in sparsely populated regions, high levels of material consumption, and the prevalence of energy intensive industries,” the Council admits.

But, the report strives to set forward looking climate and energy policies and highlights opportunities to combine climate change mitigation, adaption and other societal objectives through integrated responses. Moreover, the Council claims that in 2010, renewably energy, something that Nordic countries are naturally blessed with, (hydropower, wind power, geothermal energy and forest biomass) accounted for more than 63% of the region’s electricity generation.

So what does this mean, especially if the inter-regional body supports policies with goals that mitigate climate change, promote local renewable energy sources which are gaining widespread social acceptance and if municipalities are also striving to “promote green energy by setting their own targets and launching local initiatives”? It means that if we are to begin to understand whether a region is on a circular development path, then we have to appreciate how the whole is just as important as the individual parts.

How does systems thinking apply to the Nordic region?

Part of systems thinking is acknowledging that the imprecise starting conditions, plus feedback, leads to multiple, often surprising consequences and to outcomes that are not necessarily proportional to the input. Additionally, systems thinking emphasises flow and connection over time and has the potential to encompass regenerative conditions rather than needing to limit its focus to one or more parts and the short term.

Local and regional government policies contribute to the creation of a narrative for the circular economy transition, a flow and connection over time—one that will eventually turn into a systemic narrative, as the stories of other stakeholders combine with it in the long-term. The Nordic Council of Ministers believes that policy recommendations are key instruments for establishing the circular economy in the region. These “regenerative conditions” will also be made up of features like circular product design, material flows, waste management, but both culture and policy are two areas that can be carefully shaped by government entities.

Systemic changes require long-term perspective and the challenging of existing mindsets, which can take place through a strong culture sector to inspire change in consumption and production behaviour. Green Growth, a Nordic web magazine, said that, “sustainability is being mainstreamed into all Nordic Council of Minsters activities” and the Nordic countries, as open societies valuing culture, believe culture concerns choice of lifestyle, consumption patterns, relationship to the environment, and the acceptance of processes of change in a society. The Nordic vision is that culture builds bridges between different interest groups and contributes to societal development, identity and inclusion.

“This clear cultural focus is a reflection of the need for a holistic cross-sectoral approach to maintaining and developing the modern Nordic welfare societies,” says Halkjaeir Jensen, Senior Advisor at the department for culture and resources at the Nordic Council of Ministers. In order to facilitate the development of circular culture within the Nordic region, the Council has been hosting collaborations and workshops. For example, a recent policy brief (“Moving Towards a Circular Economy”) contains advice and policy recommendations from over eighteen executives of Nordic businesses related to the development of the circular economy as well as case studies of their successes and challenges so far.

Some of the policy recommendations include that the government impose, simple, long-term objectives and regulations to level the playing field (for circular business models), that the government set up re-use targets, that they unite and spread voices of Nordic countries and work on common positions, and that the government should utilise public procurement as a tool in creating markets and demand for circular business models. “No matter how they choose to proliferate the circular economy, it must be clear—and predictable legislation is essential for the business community to respond in a desirable way.”

Across all sectors of business in the region, a crucial prerequisite for improvement in product design is a market for them—and that creating the markets, whether by public or private demand, is essential. “One powerful driver for market creation is if public bodies could implement guidelines for the handling of equipment in order to ensure alignment with the waste hierarchy and circular economy practices” or standard criteria of expected active lifetimes of products. Overall, the case studies of circular business models already in place across a variety of sectors in the Nordic region are very promising.

In the end, commentators could easily see the glass as half full, or half empty. And when dealing with the nested systems found at regional level, things definitely get complicated. Yet there are signs that the right enabling conditions are being put into place, offering potential for the Nordic region to head towards a model that delivers prosperity for all.

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Averill Brewer

Averill Brewer

Averill Brewer is a writer based in Europe covering a range of subjects, many of which are relevant to the circular economy.