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Tsinghua and Leiden researchers find that China is crucial for realising a circular economy

A new study on the province level material footprint of China underscores the need to improve resource efficiency in the country, which would be crucial for moving to a circular economy. The research carried out by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China and Leiden University was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Monday 16 December 2019.

Special cooperation

The study was led by Bing Zhu of the Institute of Circular Economy at Tsinghua University and Arnold Tukker of the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) at Leiden University. ‘This work is the product of a special cooperation’ says Tukker. 'Jiang Meng, the first co-author, is still conducting his PhD but already has his first paper in PNAS. His attention to detail and computational skills were outstanding.'

Material footprint

‘The material footprint (MFs) measures the amount of primary material that is extracted to satisfy consumption in a country or region’, explains Paul Behrens of CML and Leiden University College (LUC), one of the lead authors of the study. ‘We already knew that China dominates global material flows, driving 30% of the global material extraction in 2010. But now we can see how different sectors and provinces within China play a key role’.

Arnold Tukker: ‘A stunning finding is that 50 to 86% of China’s MF is driven by investment in infrastructure, things like buildings, factories, and roads. This is very different to countries like the Netherlands where material impacts are driven by consuming things like food, electronic equipment, and services like insurance. Infrastructure also drives 62% of China’s fossil fuel footprint, illustrating the deep connections between material use and sectors which are often hard to decarbonise such as steel and cement production’.

Per capita MF of biomass (shown in green), fossil fuels (blue), metal (red) and nonmetallic minerals (gray), and GDP (crosses). Figure: PNAS

Circularity gap

The study found that provinces at similar development levels show different material footprints, which provides clues for how we might improve resource efficiency in the future. Provinces with capital intensive industries but with low income can have higher material footprints per capita than developed countries like the Netherlands. ‘This underscores the need to improve resource efficiency across provinces as China’s income gets closer to high-income nations around the world’, says Tukker.

The study gives important messages for moving to a circular economy. The fast expansion of infrastructure in China can’t be driven by re-using existing materials since infrastructure has a lifetime of decades, and the existing limited infrastructure in lower-income nations simply does not yet produce sufficient secondary resources to supply enough materials for the growing economy. ‘An expanding capital stock inevitably needs new primary materials.’ says Behrens. ‘We can’t really say these flows are non-circular or that they contribute to a "circularity gap" given that this infrastructure is always new’.

Elephant in the room

The finding that infrastructure dwarfs all other non-dissipative material use has another crucial implication, according to Tukker: ‘The circular economy is not about recycling some orange peels or growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds. These are of course good initiatives, but they have minimal impacts on material flows. In a different study, we found that 80% of global material flows that you really could make circular, are ‘stored’ in the economy as new infrastructures and buildings.  So, buildings and infrastructure should absolutely be the priority in any circularity strategy. Infrastructure like this is the elephant in the room at all these cosy meetings on circularity I am part of. It is essential to produce such capital stock as resource-efficiently as possible, and more importantly, to design them now for circularity’.  

Paper: Jiang, M.; Behrens, P.; Wang, T.; Tang, Z.; Yu, Y.; Chen, D.; Lui, L.; Ren, Z.; Zhou, W.; Zhu, S.; He, C.; Tukker, A. and Zhu, B., 2019. Provincial and sector-level material footprints in China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1903028116

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