The Circular Economy: Fighting Lazy Anti-Environmental Populism With Hard Facts

circular-economy-Janez Potocnik

Who cares about circular economy, unless you present it as an excellent opportunity to creating jobs, saving resources and making profit? It is a matter of communication. In times of the economic and financial crisis, the role of the European Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik was certainly not an easy task. “If you want to bring environmental topics to the headline you need to speak in a language that your colleagues would understand”, states the highly engaged Commissioner on World Environment Day, 5 June, Green Week 2014 at Brussels. “I would like to hear the EU Council talk more about major global challenges that need to be addressed, such as social and environmental problems waiting to be solved.” (Image: Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, Green Week Closing Speech, source – Greenweek)

From a 6-wheeled bicycle to a 2-wheeled bike

The concept of circular economy is as simple as it is brilliant, and nature itself could teach us how it works – if we were not too busy to listen, caught in our unsustainable treadmill of “economic growth”; a growth that will end soon due to the planetary boundaries that we can simply not ignore.

The International Resource Panel shows us how decoupling economic growth from escalating resource use and environmental degradation is possible. On 7 June, UNEP launched its report “Decoupling in Practice” that the Panel with co-chair Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker presents the audience on World Environment Day. Paul Ekins, Director at UCL Institute of Sustainable Resources illustrates the concept: “Imagine that we are riding on a 6-wheeled bicycle. We only need two wheels. It is not about throwing the 6-wheeled bicycle away, and falling down, but to gradually get rid of the four wheels that we do not really need, while learning how to keep the balance. What a progress in efficiency!”


Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker: Launch of the report “Decoupling in Practice”, Intergovernmental Resource Panel, image: Greenweek

Circular economy is not only about efficiency, but about systemic approaches and could eventually lead us to a zero-waste economy: by producing only products that can be repaired, re-used and recycled, you avoid the waste that currently fills our ecosystems on land and in the oceans, and poisons our food, our children and finally ourselves.

Circular economy policy package: Framing it into EU legislation

The Member States of the European Commission actually already agreed on the 7th EU Environmental Action Programme to 2020, entitled “Living well within the limits of our planet”. During the next months, it will need to be translated into legislation. According to Potočnik, three important communication challenges lie ahead of us to reach the next step:

1. Combatting mis-interpretation and fear
2. Setting clear targets
3. Changing mind-sets

“We have to fight lazy populism with hard facts. We will have to fight more in the next months,” concludes the Commissioner.

Facing communication challenges

The important role of communication runs like a golden thread through the Green Week. Katja Rosenbohm, Head of Communications, European Environment Agency presents the agency’s new communication strategy: “It is all about involving people, about co-creation and co-development. We have a big societal transition ahead of us. We need to acknowledge the modern tools of communication!” The innovative Commission’s initiative ‘Generation Awake’ proves the success of this new way to communicate: Many young people develop and present great and innovative ideas for a circular economy. They are invited to contribute, they participate, and they have fun doing so.


Moderator of the communication session Aminda Leigh, T-Media and panelist Katja Rosenbohm, Head of Communications, European Environment Agency, image: Greenweek

Metro screens and proactive use of social media

The Greek Ministry of Environment, Energy & Climate Change completely shifted their communication from linear to multi-circular communication. Vasilis Tikos, Adviser to the Secretary General of the Ministry stresses: “We need to re-think and re-design our communication campaigns and connect to the people, connect to real life. We used metro screens for environmental messages. Face-to-face communication is important: We listen to the people, so that they could listen to us.” Choosing the right language and defining the terms in a compelling manner is crucial. One of the new communication tools are the social media. While they do not replace face-to-face contact, they spread and multiply messages and give the opportunity for peer recommendations. 78% consumers trust in peer recommendations. Vincent Smit, Strategic Consultant and Partner, Just Connecting, shows how the social media can be used proactively in an interactive way: “It is not about content, but about context. The question is not: what should I tell the citizens? But: How can I listen to them?”

Re-using carbon dioxide?

Communication is also about telling stories. They are so many fascinating stories to be told, evolving from new discoveries in the field of circular economy. For example, could we also generate a carbon cycle, using the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and re-use it as raw material? Torsten Wöllert, Deputy Head of the Low Carbon Technologies Unit, DG Climate Action states that much research is needed, but they are many studies in the development stage. Some of those could have revolutionary impact one day.

How can we accelerate the societal transition towards an economy in line with the planetary boundaries before it will be too late? The communication experts all agree that we need public pressure. Public pressure will help to get us out of the crisis. The communication task for the next years is therefore: Creating public pressure by smart, multi-circular communication!

About the Author Katrin Heeren

A professional expert in sustainability, sustainable energy and climate change topics, with over 15 years of work experience in various projects on sustainability and policy related issues, Katrin holds a M.Sc. equivalent degree in geology and completed a post-graduate environmental sciences course in 2010. Katrin worked on national climate policy for the German Federal Environment Agency, on international climate policy and carbon finance as GIZ consultant to the German Federal Environment Ministry, and she was involved in the intergovernmental founding process of the International Renewable Energy Agency in 2008. She is experienced in communicating complex subjects to diverse target groups and especially interested in creative writing and storytelling.

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