ISIS Lecture 01/12/10

Sustainable Agriculture Essential for Green Circular Economy

No attempt to build a green economy can succeed unless it is fully integrated with sustainable primary agricultural production based on nature’s own circular economy Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Invited Lecture for Ten+One Conference on Closed Loop Thinking, University of Bradford, UK, 29 November – 1 December, 2010.

China’s circular economy initiative

I first heard the term “circular economy” mentioned while on a study-lecture tour in China in 2006; after I had  given a talk on my ‘zero-entropy model of organisms and sustainable systems’ [1, 2] (The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, ISIS publication; Sustainable Systems as Organisms? ISIS scientific publication) at the Guangzhou Institute of Geography (Guangzhou, Canton Province). Prof. Zhang Hongou, director of the Institute, told me that what I had been talking about was the “circular economy” of mainstream Chinese thinking, as opposed to the dominant linear economy of the West.

“Circular economy” originated from a Chinese government initiative launched in 2004 to balance economic development with the protection of environmental resources [3, 4]. The initiative came at the end of 25 years in which China’s economy has been growing on average 8.7 percent a year, with concomitant rise in material and energy consumption. Oil imports increased sharply, water and mineral resources were over-exploited, and environmental pollution threatened to get out of control. Politicians and academics alike were calling for a more efficient, circular economy.

Under the proposal from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a circular economy would be achieved through legislative, political, technical and financial measures; including government subsidies and tax breaks.

The initiative was targeted at the manufacturing and service business sectors, exhorting them to enhance the economy and the environment by collaborating in managing environmental resources, so that one facility’s waste, including energy, water, materials (as well as information), is another’s input. By working together, “the business community seeks a collective benefit that is larger than the sum of the individual benefits.”

The circular economy was linked to an ambitious development target to raise the majority of China’s population into “the all-round well-being society” [4], so that by 2050, a larger population of 1.8 billion would have per capita GDP increased five-fold to US$ 4 000 per year. Some people think that could be achieved within the next 30 years, but would demand a sharp rise in production, multiplying the pressures on natural resources and the environment. China’s economy would need at least a seven-fold improvement in efficiency of resource use, or more likely, as much as ten-fold.

In 2008, China passed the Circular Economy Law [5]: Article 1 states: “This Law is formulated for the purpose of promoting the development of the circular economy, improving the resource utilization efficiency, protecting and improving the environment and realizing sustainable development.” Article 2 states: “The term “circular economy” as mentioned in these measures is a generic term for the reducing, reusing and recycling activities conducted in the process of production, circulation and consumption.”

The Circular Economy Law is a watered-down version of the original proposal [4]. It has no vision for reducing resource-use, or improving resource-use efficiency seven to ten-fold. It states no goals, relying instead on incremental improvements. Furthermore, while the Law will be managed by the powerful NDRC, the actual implementation and enforcement will be delegated to Local Authorities that are often accused of being corrupt.

In my view, the biggest omission in China’s circular economy is not the lack of targets or central control; it is to leave out sustainable primary agricultural production - the heart and soul of a circular economy - as I said in a lecture at Remin University in Beijing in March 2010 (see [6] Sustainable Agriculture, Green Energies and the Circular Economy, SiS 46).