EIT Climate-KIC orchestrates a Circular, Regenerative Economies Deep Demonstration program to design national-level transitions to fully circular economies. Although challenging, it is conceivable for companies or supply chains to adopt circular approaches. However, radically transforming entire cities and countries is much harder to imagine. Hence, how to induce large-scale and systemic initiatives that support all the interconnected and complex aspects of the economy? 

For us, there are two key high-level actions that can support large-scale circular transitions. The first is to ensure that circular economy becomes a founding principle across all main strategies and action plans within a country: this means that instead of having a circular economy in a siloed box, it becomes the main approach integrated into levers such as policy, education, finance, etc. and all sectors (energy, climate, food, mobility, etc.). Secondly, the development of a detailed action plan and programme to achieve this is essential. As you mention, interconnectedness is key if we are to be truly systemic. For this, a clear map of the systems we are addressing needs to be established, and opportunities for cross-fertilisation and knowledge sharing need to be identified. An example of this is the programme we have developed for the transition to a Circular, Regenerative Economy in Slovenia, where we are working with 9 ministries to propose an integrated portfolio approach where activities are structured across intrinsically linked flagship programmes targeting major stakeholder groups (local communities, business, policymakers). This is supported by overarching programmes that focus on unlocking finance and creating value in selected key value chains. All activities build on already existing collaborations, initiatives, and networks, and a systemic approach is guaranteed by engaging multiple programmes simultaneously and with one another. For example, students part of the “Circular Schools” programme will be then connected to businesses in the “Circular Entrepreneurship” programme to test and apply their skills. Information and data generated from the “Circular Performance & Metrics” programme will be fed into “Circular Policy” to improve policy making around specific indicators, and so on.

In November 2019, the Slovenian parliament adopted Climate-KIC’s proposal which aims to assist the country in addressing climate change by building a net-zero carbon, circular, and regenerative economy. What did it take for Slovenia to accept this proposal? What are the key motivations for embarking on a circular transition?

Slovenia had already identified circular economy as a strategic development priority to ensure a prosperous future and high quality of life for Slovenian citizens. With a clear aim to become a fully circular economy much has been achieved on a strategic level – the transition to a circular economy is included in key national documents and strategies, such as the Vision for Slovenia in 2050 and the Slovenian Development Strategy 2030, the Smart Specialisation Strategy and the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan. The Slovenian Circular Economy Roadmap presents a further important step, paving the way for the transition from a linear to a circular economy. But this is obviously not enough. Business as usual is not delivering the pace and scale of change needed. Material consumption is still very high, as are the volumes of waste despite efficient management. Systemic change with deliberate action integrating all stakeholders is thus essential if Slovenia is to achieve its ambitious goal of becoming a regional leader of the transition into a circular economy, which is the main motivation behind adopting the systemic and integrative approach proposed by EIT Climate-KIC. 

It goes without saying that many governments are reluctant to operate critical and systemic changes. What are the sacrifices that circular thinking require? What are the beliefs, principles, and practices that our societies need to let go of in order to reach Europe’s net-zero emissions target?

The first thing to accept is that business as usual will no longer cut it. That being said, the systemic transition to a circular economy does not mean that all our previous efforts have been in vain. Public funding has been a key source of support to explore climate-neutral innovations, including circular economy, and we have learnt a lot from the experimentation, with many amazing solutions being born. But how do we push that one step further? How do we ensure that research & innovation is used and applied across value chains and levers? How do we scale up circular solutions, making them not only accessible but also a strategic investment for both the public and private sectors? We believe this is what we need to open ourselves up to.

We need to engage more with all stakeholders within a system to ensure buy-in and commitment from an early stage, we need to all feel not only that we have our part to play, but be within an enabling environment that supports us in doing so.

Businesses also need to look towards the greater good and the positive impact they are having, which will, in turn, be rewarded with fiscal policies and consumer support. Education needs to raise awareness of the next generations on how to think differently, systemically, to solve the major challenges of today. Similar to how we have all had to adapt in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change will require bold changes from all of us, from policy down to individual behaviours.

As both a source of inspiration and proof that radical and large-scale change is possible, the case of Slovenia is much more than a test bed for climate innovations. What is at stake?

The success of the Slovenian example will be key to leading the way for other countries, regions in cities in Europe to explore their own transition to a circular economy. As previously noted, systemic change can be daunting: it means completely rethinking and reorganising how we currently design and deliver policy, public funding, business models, education, behaviours… but it is also what needs to happen to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The pressure to act is there; governments know that they need to prevent rather than repair (and the current COVID-19 pandemic is proving this point also), but taking the jump is scary. By seeing a country not only embark on this journey but doing it successfully, the benefits and impacts will show for themselves and will incentivise others to follow the movement, all the while being a valuable source for lessons learnt and knowledge sharing to replicate the approach more efficiently and tailored to specific territories.

EIT Climate-KIC is currently exploring similar projects with other European governments and regions. From what the Deep Demonstrations have implemented so far, what will circular economy nations look like?

We hope to see circular nations reflecting the systemic and interconnected approach that we propose in our programmes. We want to see this holistic and collaborative approach become our new normal. One of the key objectives is of course to reduce the pressure on resource extraction, but the circular economy is not limited to that.

In the same way that our natural ecosystems are connected, communicate and enable one another, this is how we see circular nations operating. A greater focus on collaboration, cooperation, resource sharing – not only physical resources but also knowledge.

It is a sense of community and common objectives that will eventually flourish, with each actor in the system having their part to play. 

Until now, very few companies have genuinely embraced circular strategies and climate commitments. What can be done at a national level to push businesses to adopt zero-waste models? 

We see a lot of innovation happening on the ground within businesses, with new technologies and business models sprouting to adopt a circular approach.

It is important to note that to be fully circular, companies need to look across their entire value chains, from design all the way to production and transport – which can initially seem like a daunting task, and requires the necessary funding and resources.

For this to be more attractive to companies, incentivisation needs to happen top-down also, with policy, and specifically fiscal policy, promoting and de-risking circular rather than linear business models. The development of a national plan or strategy for circular transition is an important step here, as it demonstrates to stakeholders a country’s position to promote circularity, and thus direct public funding towards circular research & innovation. The more circular economy is embedded across national strategies, the more funding programmes will be developed around this approach, and the more business can access funding support to transition. At EIT Climate-KIC we have worked with governments to achieve just that, among which Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Ireland – to look at how to integrate circularity as a founding principle to thematic or sector-specific strategies around energy, climate, finance, food, etc. which in turn shapes financial policies to be more inclusive of circular business models, which supports existing circular businesses and incentivises other businesses to transition.