The scientific community is raising the alarm about the planetary boundaries, especially climate change and biosphere integrity where the Earth is already in the zone of uncertainty, but also others, like fresh water or land use where risks are increasing, with effects more pronounced in certain parts of the world.
Source: J.Lokrants/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015.
As the threats have become increasingly evident, with floods, droughts, wildfires and crop failures featuring prominently in the media, the policy response has intensified, co-opting more and more diverse actors. Today, climate change and sustainability are on the agenda of every kind of organization, in every sector, from governments to academia, industry and finance. Global coordination has become credible with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. The sustainability perspective and the public discourse have changed significantly from a “do good” moral paradigm into a crisis mitigation and management mode. The number and size of the organizations rallying behind concrete policies and investments on climate action stand as proof for that.
However, despite these efforts, the world is not on track to reach its goals in terms of GHG emissions, biodiversity, water use, forests and plastic pollution, just to name a few of the relevant environmental indicators.
With emerging economies projected to account for more and more of the global population by 2050 and naturally aspiring to better quality of life, the environmental limits will be severely tested if the economic growth model will not change substantially.
The circular economy model aims to ease the tension between development and environmental strain, by partially decoupling growth from resource consumption and waste generation. It aims to do so by optimizing renewable sources and extending the useful life of products through sharing, repairing, reusing, refurbishing and recycling. By design, the economy is expected to move from the linear model of resource extraction, processing, use and waste to a more circular model using fewer raw materials, keeping products in use for longer and minimizing waste.
Source: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019
While the model looks simple and straightforward, the transition towards it is anything but. Changing the economic model of the world looks like a monumental task. While often presented as fully compatible with capitalism and profit, the circular model involves painful and costly decisions and is more likely to be a slow, gradual process with incremental “circularity” gains than a sudden paradigm shift.
The relatively abstract field of ecological economics, with its focus on natural limits to growth and distributional fairness, offers a critical and more skeptical view on the compatibility of capitalism with sustainable development and the circular economy model. While that intellectual tradition challenges many of the economic assumptions used in the organization of contemporary societies, it also provides for a potentially pragmatic approach on how to engage with concrete policy solutions that lead to sustainability improvements with varying time horizons. Perhaps the circular economic model is unattainable and development cannot be perfectly sustainable, however, improvements are possible and can be consequential. By creatively challenging some of the most entrenched practices underpinning policy or business decisions, such improvements may accumulate, generating significant progress.
In this context, recognizing the desirability but also the complexity of sustainable development and the circular economy model, ECERA aims to place itself at the intersection between the generators and users of knowledge. ECERA aims to help governments, companies, NGOs, universities, and others navigate the various facets of sustainability. Inspired by the ecological economics paradigm with its focus on sustainability-growth trade-offs and distributional fairness, ECERA will promote sustainable development and the circular economy model by producing interdisciplinary, pragmatic and actionable knowledge, engaging with diverse stakeholders and using effective communication tools. ECERA will seek to influence the agenda of organizations and the public, helping promote a more complex understanding of the challenges and choices behind sustainable development and the circular model, with a particular focus on the developing countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.
The activity of ECERA will be guided by the following vision:
- Persistent problems are persistent because they are difficult. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Understanding such problems in greater depth is crucial.
- When it comes to public policies, win-win situations are rare. More often than not complex problems involve tough trade-offs. More accurate, nuanced, and widespread information makes these trade-offs manageable and decisions more effective.
- Science is the best available source for informed decision-making. However, science is not about being right all the time, but about becoming less wrong over time, by having a global community of scientists questioning and challenging the existing and newly produced knowledge. Science cannot tell exactly what will happen by 2050 or 2100, but is the best chance we have for understanding the world around us and evaluating the risks we are facing.
- Markets are effective instruments stimulating entrepreneurial initiative, innovation, and efficiency, but they are weak at identifying social costs and benefits and even less effective at achieving distributive equity. States need to develop modern tools to correct the failures of markets.
- Sustainability should be understood as equilibrium and resilience, the capacity of systems to endure and resist to shocks. It covers the environment but also the economy and society. Social systems with great disparities of wealth and quality of life within and between countries are not in equilibrium and cannot endure.
- The economic system has been transformed by technological change. The meaning of such notions as labor and capital, private and public, competition and cooperation, are evolving to reflect that. In dealing with the challenges of the 21st century, the intellectual tools also need to adapt.
With this vision in mind and within the capabilities of its network of members and contributors, ECERA will tackle the following subjects:
- Energy & Climate (Energy transitions / Energy efficiency / Digitalization / Smart cities and transportation / Energy markets / Prosumers / Energy poverty / Energy security / LCA / Climate resilience and adaptation / Natural climate solutions)
- Water & Resources (Fresh water / Sanitation / Climate migration / Water conflicts / Health)
- Sustainability and Circular Economy (Sustainable finance / Regeneration of natural capital / Sustainable cities and societies / Shared Value Strategy / Strategies for resource management)