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Impact of Circular Economy Measures in the European Union Built Environment on a Net-Zero Target


Abstract and Figures

Environmental benefits of circular economy (CE) measures, such as waste reduction, need to be weighed against the urgent need to reduce CO 2 emissions to zero, in line with the Paris Agreement climate goals of 1.5-2 °C. Several studies have quantified CO 2 emissions associated with CE measures in the construction sector in different EU countries, with the literature's focus ranging from bricks and insulation products, to individual buildings, to the entire construction sector. We find that there is a lack of synthesis and comparison of such studies to each other and to the EU CO 2 emission reduction targets, showing a need for estimating the EU-wide mitigation potential of CE strategies. To evaluate the contribution that CE strategies can make to reducing the EU's emissions, we scale up the CO 2 emission estimates from the existing studies to the EU level and compare them to each other, from both construction-element and sector-wide perspectives. Our analysis shows that average CO 2 savings from sector-wide estimates (mean 39.28 Mt CO 2 eq./year) slightly exceeded construction-element savings (mean 25.06 Mt CO 2 eq./year). We also find that a conservative estimate of 234 Mt CO 2 eq./year in combined emission savings from CE strategies targeting construction elements can significantly contribute towards managing the EU's remaining carbon budget. While this is a significant mitigation potential, our analysis suggests caution as to how the performance and trade-offs of CE strategies are evaluated, in relation to wider sustainability concerns beyond material and waste considerations.
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
1 3
Impact ofCircular Economy Measures intheEuropean Union
Built Environment onaNet‑Zero Target
M.Sharmina1 · D.Pappas2,3· K.Scott4· A.Gallego‑Schmid1
Received: 10 October 2022 / Accepted: 6 February 2023
© The Author(s) 2023
Environmental benefits of circular economy (CE) measures, such as waste reduction, need
to be weighed against the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions to zero, in line with the
Paris Agreement climate goals of 1.5–2°C. Several studies have quantified CO2 emissions
associated with CE measures in the construction sector in different EU countries, with the
literature’s focus ranging from bricks and insulation products, to individual buildings, to
the entire construction sector. We find that there is a lack of synthesis and comparison of
such studies to each other and to the EU CO2 emission reduction targets, showing a need
for estimating the EU-wide mitigation potential of CE strategies. To evaluate the contribu-
tion that CE strategies can make to reducing the EU’s emissions, we scale up the CO2 emis-
sion estimates from the existing studies to the EU level and compare them to each other,
from both construction-element and sector-wide perspectives. Our analysis shows that
average CO2 savings from sector-wide estimates (mean 39.28 Mt CO2 eq./year) slightly
exceeded construction-element savings (mean 25.06 Mt CO2 eq./year). We also find that a
conservative estimate of 234 Mt CO2 eq./year in combined emission savings from CE strat-
egies targeting construction elements can significantly contribute towards managing the
EU’s remaining carbon budget. While this is a significant mitigation potential, our analysis
suggests caution as to how the performance and trade-offs of CE strategies are evaluated,
in relation to wider sustainability concerns beyond material and waste considerations.
Keywords Carbon emissions· Construction sector· Carbon budget· Decarbonisation·
Emission reduction· Climate change
* M. Sharmina
1 Tyndall Centre forClimate Change Research, School ofEngineering, The University
ofManchester, M139PLManchester, UK
2 Business School, Liverpool Hope University, L169JDLiverpool, UK
3 Tyndall Centre forClimate Change Research, Faculty ofScience, University ofEast Anglia,
NR47TJNorwich, UK
4 Geography Department, The University ofManchester, M139PLManchester, UK
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to
1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels [1]. A sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emis-
sions is needed in the following years to avoid the most severe consequences of climate
change, including extreme droughts, heatwaves and floods [2]. To this end, the Euro-
pean Union (EU) has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 com-
pared with 1990 levels and to become carbon neutral by 2050 [3]. The European Com-
mission [4] has identified transport, agriculture and construction as the key sectors to
focus on. All these sectors are high emitters, and the construction sector is particularly
challenging to fully decarbonise due to increasing demand for buildings and infrastruc-
ture, the stock’s long lifespan and reliance on carbon-intensive materials such as steel
and cement [5].
The building sector currently accounts for more than a third of the total greenhouse
gas emissions both worldwide [6] and in the EU [7]. Until recently, the reduction of
operational emissions has been the main focus of policies such as the Energy Efficiency
Directive [8] and research [9]. The subsequent improvement in energy efficiency and
performance has reduced the level of operational emissions. However, less attention has
been given to buildings-embodied emissions, and their relative contribution has become
increasingly significant [5, 10]. It has been estimated that between 5 and 12% of total
greenhouse gas emissions from the EU are associated with the extraction of raw mate-
rials, the manufacturing of construction products and the construction and renovation
of the buildings [11]. Up to 80% of those greenhouse gas emissions could be saved
by improving material efficiency [12]. As the urban population is expected to represent
68% of the total by 2050, adding 2.5billion to the world’s urban population [13], meas-
ures to increase material efficiency in the construction sector are key to achieving the
goals set in the Paris Agreement [1].
Circular economy (CE) principles can play a crucial role in improving the material effi-
ciency of the building sector and, therefore, influence embodied emissions [14, 15]. The
CE can be defined as ‘a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission,
and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy
loops’ [16]. Slowing resource loops implies intensifying and expanding the use of products
to prolong their value over time, whereas closing resource loops entails upcycling to create
or restore new value from used materials [17]. Finally, narrowing resource loops implies
reducing environmental impacts and resource consumption per unit of product [18]. How-
ever, studies have lamented a lack of empirical evidence that shows the contribution of CE
to sustainability and the potential trade-offs [19, 20].
Material economics [21] has estimated that CE approaches can cut by 38% the green-
house gas emissions (up to 2billion t of CO2) in the building sector by 2050 by reduc-
ing the demand for four key materials: aluminium, steel, plastic and cement. Examples
of CE strategies that can be applied to achieve this reduction include the following:
Increasing material efficiency with a better design, e.g. the same structural strength
can be achieved using 50–60% of the amount of cement currently applied [21]. The
potential reduction of emissions by 2050 is 1billion t of CO2/year.
Reducing waste in the construction site, e.g. modular offsite construction can reduce
waste by up to 90% compared with traditional onside construction [22]. The poten-
tial reduction of emissions by 2050 is 0.2billion t of CO2/year.
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Increasing the use of building, e.g. by sharing offices or multi-purposed and repur-
posed buildings [23]. The potential reduction of emissions by 2050 is 0.3billion t of
Reusing and recycling materials, e.g. the reuse of materials in the construction of 70
thousand new apartments could lead to reducing by 500,000 tonnes the amount of
used materials [24]. The potential reduction of emissions by 2050 is 0.6billion t of
Prolonging the functional lifetime of the buildings, e.g. durable, flexible and
modular designs [25]. The potential reduction of emissions is 1billion t of CO2
beyond 2050.
Although CE implementation can curtail overall CO2 emissions at the country level
[26], particularly in the long term [27], evidence in the building sector is mixed [25, 28].
While some CE strategies in this sector can and do reduce CO2, other strategies might in
fact result in higher emissions. For example, increased durability of floor coverings through
repair and maintenance can lead to 38.9 CO2 eq./m2 in additional emissions [29], while
significantly refurbishing a building every 10 years can increase the building’s embodied
carbon by 67% [30]. Reuse almost consistently leads to lower CO2 across several studies,
whether focused on a single construction element such as rail track [31] or focused on the
entire construction sector [32]. However, some studies do estimate extra emissions from
reuse [33]. Such differences are due partly to how the CE strategies are implemented, and
partly to how CO2 emissions are measured [25].
Exacerbating the challenges of assessing CO2 emissions, arising or saved as a result
of CE strategies, are inadequate datasets that often lack consistency [34] or geographical
specificity [35]; diversity of metrics for ‘circularity’ [36]; and absence of a unifying CE
framework [37]. Another key challenge in this area includes the difficulty of comparing CE
assessments to each other and to sectoral and national emission reduction targets, informed
by the Paris Agreement climate change goal [25]. Consequently, reviews of CE’s impact
on CO2 in construction so far have been qualitative [25, 38]. A multiplicity of locations,
timeframes and other methodological assumptions points to a research need essential for
informing low-carbon policy in the construction sector.
Accordingly, this paper’s aim is to estimate a range of trade-offs between CE measures
and climate change mitigation (expressed in CO2 emission savings or extra CO2 emissions)
in the EU construction sector, to inform the region’s emission reduction targets. The main
contribution of our study is in synthesising knowledge in this area in an interdisciplinary
way by comparing existing CO2 estimates for a range of CE strategies to one other and to
the EU’s remaining carbon budget for the first time. As an important contribution to com-
paring estimates at different scales, our study brings together the micro-level (construc-
tion elements and buildings), meso-level (neighbourhoods and the buildings sector as a
whole) and macro-level (national and supra-national carbon budgets and emission reduc-
tion targets).
We achieve the aim of this paper through three objectives: we first extract CO2 estimates
from existing studies on CE measures in the construction sector in the European Union
(plus the UK). We then scale up these estimates to the EU level where they refer to an
individual country, and annualise them where a multi-year estimate is provided, to make
them comparable. Finally, we compare the scaled-up annual CO2 emission estimates to
each other as well as to the EU’s carbon budgets. In addition, we reflect on the challenges
of comparing such estimates across studies that employ a variety of modelling approaches
and assumptions.
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This section explains the logic behind the process of scaling up the CO2 estimates from
the existing literature. We deliberately call the process ‘scaling up’ rather than ‘model-
ling’, as the intention is to use a simple and transparent method to gauge approximate
CO2 emissions and their orders of magnitude as estimated across the literature. The
main advantages of our scaling-up method are its simplicity and transparency, as well
as lower data intensity, compared to more complex modelling. These characteristics are
particularly important for first-of-a-kind exploratory studies, like ours, that compare
quantitative results from other studies based on different models, inputs and baselines.
So, to achieve comparability and (as it were) to obtain the common denominator, we
have developed a straightforward and easy-to-trace method to scale up the CO2 esti-
mates both temporally and spatially, while drawing attention to the challenges of evalu-
ating circular economy strategies and measuring their impact on the climate.
Although this scaling-up exercise is the first synthesis of CE measures in the EU con-
struction sector, the methodological approach itself is not uncommon: it is used widely
in mitigation potential synthesis studies (see e.g. IPCC Working Group III assessment
reports, or [39]). Throughout the paper, and particularly in the Discussion section, we
acknowledge the challenges of comparing CO2 estimates derived from a variety of
methodologies, assumptions and models.
Selecting Our Sample ofQuantitative CO2 Emission Estimates
As a starting point, we used a sample of 24 studies shortlisted and reviewed by Gallego-
Schmid etal. [25] on the co-benefits and trade-offs between CE measures in the built
environment and climate change mitigation. We repeated the search on the same data-
base (Scopus) and expanded the sample to 34 papers, grouping them by CE loop and
CE strategy (Fig.1). The relatively small number of studies covered here is due to the
search terms used: understandably, some relevant studies might have slipped through
the net. Although a more comprehensive list of search terms could yield a larger number
of search results, the reviewed studies already provide a good spread of CO2 estimates,
as demonstrated in the Results section.
We applied a range of search strings that included ‘circular economy’ AND ‘con-
struction OR buil*’ AND one of the following terms: durability, remanufacturing, refur-
bishment, product service systems, servitisation, sharing, closed-loop, material circular-
ity, reuse, upcycling, maintenance, repair, upgrade, upgrading, circular supplies, reverse
supply chains, reverse logistics, take back systems, cascading, by-product exchange,
repurpose, recover, extended producer responsibility, cycling and industrial symbio-
sis [25]. Note that while material efficiency has been conceptualised by others [40] as
broadly as the CE framework, here, we treat it as one of the CE strategies.
Supplementary TablesS1–3 summarise the full sample of analysed studies by their
scale, country or region of focus, timeframe and CE strategy. The final column of each
table provides our estimates of extra emissions (or emission savings) per year at the
EU level, based on our scaling up of each study’s data. Note that where a study covers
several CE strategies and thereby fits into different CE loops, it is listed in more than
one Supplementary Table. For example, Cooper etal. [41] model both reuse (slowing
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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loops) and lightweighting (narrowing loops) and therefore appear in both Supplemen-
tary TablesS1 and S3.
Scaling Up theEstimates totheEU Level
For each study, we extracted estimates of CO2 savings or extra emissions arising from CE
strategies. Where a range of estimates was provided in a study, we recorded the minimum
of the range as a ‘lower bound’ and the maximum of the range as an ‘upper bound’, to get
an idea of the spread. For comparability of results within the boxplots presented in this
paper, where a study provided only one estimate, this value was assumed to represent both
the upper and lower bounds.
For the purposes of our paper, the studies’ estimates often needed to be scaled up spa-
tially (i.e. from one country or one construction element to the entire EU level) and in
some cases scaled down temporally (i.e. from a multi-year lifecycle emission estimate to
an annual estimate). Both types of scaling required a number of assumptions and additional
data and statistics outside the sample of studies. The assumptions are explained in this sec-
tion, while information on additional data and sources used in this paper can be found in
Supplementary TableS4.
To spatially scale up CO2 estimates provided per construction element (e.g. per brick,
m2, or wall assembly), we used the following steps:
Fig. 1 The number of analysed studies by circular economy loop and by circular economy strategy. Note:
some studies cover circular economy strategies from two loops and, hence, are counted in this figure twice
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1 Searched for available numbers for, or estimated, how many of such construction ele-
ments are likely to be in Europe or, if an estimate at the European level was not available,
in one or several European countries.
2 Scaled up the number of the construction elements from the country level to the EU
level in proportion to the country’s share in the EU population.
3 Multiplied the number of construction elements in the EU by the CO2 emissions per
construction element.
For example, if the CO2 emission estimate was given per cantilever truss [42], we
estimated how many cantilever trusses there are in the EU, or at least in one of the EU
countries, and then scaled it up proportionately based on the country-vs-EU popula-
tion numbers (see Eq.1). In another example, Migliore etal. [43] estimated emission
savings from using recycled material in bricks, providing CO2 eq.per tonne of bricks.
Here, we arrived at EU-wide emission savings from this CE strategy by combining it
with data on the number of bricks used annually in the EU and the average weight of a
brick (see Eq.2 and Supplementary TableS4).
=carbon emissions from EU
s construction sector
PEU =EU population;
Pi=i countrys population;
Nji =number of j infrastructures in i country;
Cj=carbon emissions from one infrastructure of type j
Wj=weight of one infrastructure of type j;
Cw=carbon emissions per unit of weight
To spatially scale up CO2 estimates provided per sector in a particular EU country
(e.g. for the entire construction sector in the UK), we again used the country-vs-EU
population ratio. For example, Barrett and Scott [44] estimated emission savings from
modular buildings and the substitution of cement at the construction sector level in the
UK. As the UK population is around 13% of that of the EU [45], we scaled up this esti-
mate to the EU level in proportion to the population (see Eq.3).
=carbon emissions from country i
s construction sector
In relation to the temporal scaling up, we came across two types of studies. Firstly, some
studies presented CO2 estimates that are one-off actions [30, 46], for example cavity wall
insulation, so such savings could not be implemented annually or multiple times on the
same building stock; hence, we treated them as a one-off CO2 saving. Secondly, where
studies provided cumulative estimates for CO2 savings within their own timeframe (e.g. up
EU =
×Nji ×C
EU =
×Nji ×Wj×C
EU =
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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to 2032 in [32]), we divided the savings by their provided timeframe to obtain an annual
estimate (see Eq.4).
Cm=multiyear carbon emission estimate;
Yt=target year;
Y0=base year
Calculating theEU’s Remaining Carbon Budget
After scaling up the estimates from the studies, we compared them to the remaining EU-27
carbon budget, using 2019 as a baseline year. To calculate the latter, we deducted the 2019
global annual emissions [47] from the 2018 global carbon budget [48], to derive the budget
remaining after 2020. We then divided this remaining global carbon budget by the world
population for 2019 [49] and multiplied it by the EU-27 population for the same year [45].
We then assumed that this remaining EU-27 carbon budget would be spent linearly before
2050, with the same annual amount of CO2 emitted (i.e. the same annual amount of the
carbon budget spent). We, therefore, divided the budget by 31 years covering the period
between 2019 and 2050 (see Eq.5).
CBEU,t=EUs remaining annualised carbon budget before target year;
CBG=global carbon budget remaining between base year and target year;
PG,0 =global population in base year;
=EU population in base year
Here, we present our analysis of the scaled-up emission estimates by their scope (studies
covering the entire construction sector, a neighbourhood, or construction elements such
as bricks or tarmac), by CE loop (slowing, closing or narrowing) and by CE strategy (e.g.
reuse, upcycling or material substitution). We then compare the emission estimates to the
EU-27 carbon budget remaining before 2050, to put them into perspective. All estimates
presented in this paper are our scaled-up numbers, rather than the original numbers from
the literature.
Mitigation Potential byScope
There are only three studies [29, 50, 51] in the sample estimating both savings and extra
emissions from CE measures in the construction sector within the same study. Emission
savings of, for example, using ceramic tiles instead of synthetic carpet around Europe
EU =
×PEU,0 ÷(YtY0
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would be around 4.52 to 41.85 Mt CO2 eq.per annum [29]. By contrast, more intensive
use, repair, maintenance and replacement of flooring surfaces would lead to extra emis-
sions of 3.77–18.11 Mt CO2 eq.per annum at the EU level (ibid.). Among the studies esti-
mating both extensive extra emissions and emission savings, De Wolf etal. [50] demon-
strate large uncertainty: from extra emissions of 320.04 Mt CO2 to emission savings of
960.12 Mt CO2 eq.per annum. The construction elements in this study include exterior and
interior walls, floors and intermediate floors, roofs, fire protection elements and windows.
Among the analysed studies, only three focused on modelling the entire construction
sector [32, 41, 44], while the rest focused on separate construction elements such as bricks
[43], train station roofs [42] or asphalt [52]. Note that ‘construction elements’ in this con-
text could be rather substantial, for example, reuse, recycling and energy recovery from
building materials in schools, offices and residential buildings [53]. Only one study focused
on the neighbourhood building stock [51] rather than on either the sector or construction
element, with an estimate of 0.01 Mt CO2 eq.annual emission savings from intensive use
of the stock. Our comparison shows that sector-wide emission savings (mean 39.28 Mt
CO2 eq.) were on average slightly higher than construction-element savings (mean 25.06
Mt CO2 eq.). In particular, sector-wide estimates ranged between 0.01 Mt CO2 eq./year
from refurbishment, which did not include savings from operation energy [44], and 124.76
Mt CO2 eq.from combined lightweighting, substitution and efficiency increase [41]. Con-
struction-element estimates had a wider range: between 320.04 Mt CO2 of extra emissions
and 960.12 Mt CO2 of emission savings when looking at the reuse case, with both esti-
mates scaled up from the same study [50].
Extra emissions (rather than emission savings) only appeared among the studies focused
on construction elements, and not among the sector-wide studies. Estimates in the sector-
wide studies could exceed the larger positive impacts of other CE strategies, resulting in
the overall emission savings. It is plausible that the more aggregated nature of economy-
wide models makes it difficult to distinguish between impacts of alternative sources of steel
such as high strength or recycled.
Mitigation Potential byCE Strategy
Extra emissions are present among studies focused on slowing (using products for longer
or more intensively) and closing resource loops (upcycling and closed-loop recycling), but
not among studies on narrowing loops (e.g. lightweighting and material substitution). Cas-
tro and Pasanen [30], Ros-Dosda etal. [29] and Sánchez and Hass [33] focusing on slow-
ing loops and Wiprachtiger etal. [54] focusing on closing loops estimate exclusively extra
emissions between 0.05 [33] and 63.31 Mt CO2eq.[30] per annum. Other studies explor-
ing slowing loops show that refurbishment and durability can result in small to moderate
emission savings, for example, up to 5.8 kt CO2 eq.in saved emissions from refurbishment
[44] and up to 1.2 Mt CO2 eq.in saved emissions from durability [55].
The studies where a combination of CE strategies was explored, such as both reuse and
recycling, present greater emission savings at the lower bound when compared to studies
exploring an isolated CE strategy. We find that among studies focused on slowing resource
loops, Eberhardt etal. [53] estimate savings of 360.67 Mt CO2 eq.At the upper bound, the
reuse case explored in isolation by De Wolf etal. [50] presents the greatest emission sav-
ings among all studies, at 960.12 Mt CO2 eq.In the studies focused on upcycling in isola-
tion, emission savings reach 0.11–4.33 Mt CO2eq.[43, 52, 56], whereas upcycling with
design for disassembly saves 12.39–19.48 Mt CO2eq.[57].
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Among the slowing resource loops for the studies focused on construction ele-
ments (Fig.2), refurbishment is the leading contributor to extra emissions, at 69.57 Mt
CO2eq.[30], followed by durability, which ranged from 3.77 to 18.11 Mt CO2eq.[29].
However, Campbell [55] highlights durability as cutting emissions by 1.2 Mt CO2 eq.The
combined range of emission estimates for durability adds up to extra emissions, rather than
to emission savings.
As illustrated in Figs.3 and 4, there is much variability in the emission estimates for
the CE strategy of reuse, ranging from 320.04 Mt CO2eq.[50] in extra emissions to 35.02
Fig. 2 Potential extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq. per year) in the European Union from
slowing resource loops per circular economy strategy. Note: reuse is excluded from this figure and, instead,
explored in Figs.2 and 3
Fig. 3 Potential extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq. per year) in the European Union from
reuse across a range of studies. Note: reuse cases combined with other circular economy strategies are
excluded from this figure and, instead, explored in Fig.4
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Mt CO2 eq.[58], 124.76 Mt CO2eq. [41] and 960.12 Mt CO2 eq.in emission savings.
This variability can be partly explained by the large number of studies exploring reuse,
compared to other CE strategies. Specifically, thirteen studies focus on reuse as a single
strategy (Fig.3) and four more focus on reuse in combination with other strategies (Fig.4)
such as optimisation and material substitution [46], recycling [59], design for disassembly
[60] and intensive use [61]. The dominance of studies on reuse (along with recycling) is
consistent with findings by other researchers [14].
Focusing on the reuse case further, when assessing emissions from reuse of construc-
tion elements (i.e. after excluding sector-wide studies), we observe significant variability
between the estimates, ranging from emission savings of 960.12 Mt CO2eq.[50] to extra
emissions of 0.21 Mt CO2 eq. [33] (Fig. 3). By contrast, when scaling up at the lower
bound for the reuse cases, we observe lower emission savings and higher extra emis-
sions, with 320.04 Mt CO2 eq.of extra emissions [50] and emission savings of 9.92 Mt
CO2eq.[31]. All other reuse options result in emission savings [e.g.6265], with com-
bined reuse, recycling and recovery saving the largest amount of carbon dioxide at 360.67
Mt CO2 [53].
While reuse is largely discussed in our literature sample as a single strategy, four stud-
ies discuss it in conjunction with other CE strategies. We present scaled-up estimates from
these sources in Fig.4. We exclusively find emission savings across these combined strate-
gies, ranging from 4.01 Mt CO2 eq.at the lower bound when looking at reuse combined
with design for disassembly [60], and up to 360.67 Mt CO2 eq.from reuse combined with
recycling and energy recovery [53].
Among the studies on closing loops, emission savings mainly derive from recycling,
with 77.01 Mt CO2 eq. at the upper bound and 18.11 Mt CO2 eq. at the lower bound
[6668], and closed-loop recycling with savings of 44.16 Mt CO2eq.[69]. Further emis-
sion savings come from upcycling and design for disassembly [43, 52, 56] and from upcy-
cling [57], as Fig.5 presents.
When examining the narrowing resource loops by CE strategy in the sector-wide stud-
ies (Fig. 6), it is evident that the lightweighting, substitution and efficiency are leading
Fig. 4 Potential extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq. per year) in the European Union from
reuse cases combined with other circular economy strategies
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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contributors to emission savings, amounting to 124.76 Mt CO2eq.[41]. Design optimisa-
tion to reduce and substitute material inputs also leads to emission savings, with 40.87
Mt CO2 eq.of savings at the upper bound of scaling up and 1.07 Mt CO2 eq.at the lower
bound [32]. Emission savings additionally come from improved construction products,
reaching 16.73 Mt CO2 eq. [66], while material substitution presents a range of 13.94 to
51.27 Mt CO2 eq.of emission savings [29, 44, 46, 54].
Fig. 5 Potential extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq. per year) in the European Union from
closing resource loops per circular economy strategy. Note: all of the closing-loop studies focus on con-
struction elements rather than on sector-wide estimates
Fig. 6 Potential extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq. per year) in the European Union from
narrowing resource loops per circular economy strategy
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Comparison withtheEU‑27 Remaining Carbon Budget
Before proceeding to the comparison of our CO2 estimates with the EU-27 carbon budget,
it is worth noting several points. First, for this part of the analysis, we have added up the
estimates from all of the analysed studies, which raises several thorny methodological
issues discussed in the next section. Second, some of the CE strategies are one-off or take
place at long intervals, so cannot be repeated annually until 2050. Such CE strategies, e.g.
refurbishing the building skin and interiors every 10 or 20 years [30], are mainly evident
among the slowing loop studies in our sample (see Supplementary TablesS1–3 for more
information on the timescales of the CE strategies). Therefore, the summed-up values in
Fig.6 are more optimistic than the CO2 emission reductions from the construction sec-
tor that would in practice be available year on year. Third, note that in this section, as the
summed-up values are relatively high compared to those in the preceding sections, the val-
ues are rounded up to whole numbers for ease of reading.
When comparing the emission estimates to the EU-27 carbon budget remaining before
2050 (Fig. 7), the potential of CE in the construction sector to manage this budget is
remarkable. The remaining carbon budget of around 726 Mt CO2 eq.per year would be
more than twice compensated for by the upper bound 1671 Mt CO2 eq.from construction
element focused studies. However, as noted in the previous paragraph, this is an optimistic
assessment. The lower bound of 234 Mt CO2 eq.might give a more conservative estimate
of potential annual CO2 emission savings from the CE strategies applied to individual con-
struction elements such as bricks [43] or cantilever trusses [58]. The aggregated range for
the sector-wide studies is between 252 and 298 Mt CO2 eq.For this comparison, we have
not summed up the sector-wide estimates with those from the construction element focused
studies, as the latter would then likely be double-counted.
Fig. 7 Extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq.per year) from the circular economy strategies in
the European Union’s construction sector compared to the remaining EU-27 carbon budget per annum. The
carbon budget was divided by the number of years between 2019 and 2050
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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The current literature on the circular economy has been criticised for its lack of empirical
work, its bespoke, case-specific nature of studies and limited focus on service-based strate-
gies such as sharing and leasing [19]. These limitations can be at least in part attributed to
the absence of a unifying framework [20] and a prevalent focus on China [70], restricting
analyses of the mitigation potential of EU-wide CE strategies. We start to address this in
our analysis of the construction and use-patterns of the building sector in the EU. Given
the significance of greenhouse gas emissions from the sector, our study provides a first and
vital attempt to estimate the total mitigation potential of CE strategies in the EU’s built
We have calculated the upper and lower bounds of possible emission savings from ana-
lysed CE strategies from a systematic review of the literature (including studies on the
UK). Spatial and temporal scaling techniques have been applied to construction elements
and countries to evaluate the CO2 mitigation potential at the EU level. A realistic emission
reduction potential is likely to lie somewhere within those boundaries.
Most studies focused on specific construction elements, as critically observed by Kirch-
herr and van Santen [19], with three looking across the construction sector more broadly.
Studies focusing on one element risk neglecting trade-offs between alternative strategies,
and provide less validation for practitioners working across the sector. Studies looking
across the sector estimated slightly greater mean emission savings of 14 Mt CO2 eq.; how-
ever, one study on reuse of multiple construction elements, including walls, floors, roofs
and windows (which we categorised as construction elements), reported the highest mitiga-
tion potential of 960 Mt CO2 eq., yet the range of savings across elements was large (+ 320
to 1200 Mt CO2 eq.). Without consistent data, it is difficult to understand how much
these differences relate to data and modelling, or different building and material contexts.
Fig. 8 Extra emissions and emission savings (MtCO2 eq.per year) from the circular economy loops in the
European Union’s construction sector. Note: some studies cover circular economy strategies from two loops
and, hence, are counted in this figure twice
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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Comparing the CE strategies by loop (Fig.8), we found some studies that considered
slowing and closing resource loops estimated exclusively extra emissions of up to 63 Mt
CO2 eq. It is important to acknowledge that not all circularity strategies are inherently
‘win-win’ [71]. Strategies sitting outside of this ‘win-win’ paradigm that address trade-
offs become at risk of being overlooked, and oversimplifying circularity solutions. Slow-
ing loops focused on refurbishment and durability of construction elements. Sector-wide
studies looking at the same CE strategies however estimated moderate emission savings in
the region of up to 1 Mt CO2 eq.There was a wide range of emission estimates for reuse
(+ 35 to 960 Mt CO2 eq.), also categorised here as slowing resource loops. This perhaps
reflected the large number of studies focused on this strategy (11 focused solely on reuse),
yet all but one study that focused on construction elements showed emission savings within
a smaller range of 0 to 35 Mt CO2 eq.When reuse was combined with additional strategies
including recycling and energy recovery, overall savings were on average higher, albeit
without the extremes (4 to 361 Mt CO2 eq.).
While some CE strategies that closed resource loops led to negligible additional emis-
sions (less than 0.5 Mt CO2 eq.), these were outweighed by potential savings. The highest
mitigation potential was reported for recycling (18 to 77 Mt CO2 eq.), then closed-loop
recycling (44 Mt CO2 eq.) and upcycling combined with design for disassembly (12
to 19 Mt CO2 eq.). Considering the narrowing of resource loops, only emission savings
were reported, with lightweighting, substitution and efficiency in combination contributing
the highest savings potential (125 Mt CO2 eq.) in one sector-wide study. When taking
CE strategies in isolation, material substitution (14 to 51 Mt CO2 eq.) and material effi-
ciency (6 to 15 Mt CO2 eq.) showed the greatest savings. On balance, our analysis sug-
gests that, at the upper bound, a combination of CE strategies where possible (for example
upcycling and design for disassembly) would lead to higher emission savings per strategy
than if they were implemented individually.
We compared summed-up annual emission savings, at both upper and lower bounds,
with an available carbon budget for the EU-27 annualised from 2019 to 2050, finding a
significant potential for CE strategies in the construction sector to stay within the EU’s
remaining carbon budget. While the upper bound is optimistic as it inevitably includes
some double counting when adding estimated CO2 savings together, the lower bound esti-
mates from the sector-wide studies indicate CO2 savings equivalent to a third of the EU’s
remaining budget. While our search terms covered CE strategies in the building or con-
struction sector, not all construction elements and CE strategies will have been considered
in the analysed studies, indicating additional potential savings exist elsewhere.
Despite the EU’s CE Action Plan providing a prerequisite to achieve climate neutral-
ity by 2050 [11], some measures presented in the literature as circular resulted in extra
emissions, for example, the repair and maintenance of more intensively used floor surfaces.
While this relates to both how CE strategies are implemented and how emissions are meas-
ured (a methodological challenge identified in e.g. Korhonen etal. [72]), it leads to wider
debates about whether these circular strategies are environmentally sustainable. Although
arguably complete circularity is theoretically possible [72], context is important, such as
the energy used in the recycling process. While these strategies were incorporated in our
study because ‘circular’ was one of the key search terms, it highlights the need to consider
carefully how the sustainability of CE strategies is measured, to avoid and address unin-
tended consequences.
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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Limitations andFuture Research
Limitations of this work arise from the need to provide a harmonised dataset from a diverse
and inconsistent evidence base. The scaling up of construction elements using an estimate
of their quantity in the EU-27 and emission estimates in proportion to the country’s share
in the EU-27 population required several assumptions and additional data and statistics
outside the sample of studies. However, countries can use very different building materials
and in different amounts depending on design and standards. For example, not all countries
will use predominantly bricks, or the same construction elements. In addition, population
shares will not be fully representative of building demands due to different house sizes and
occupancy rates. These factors could over- or underestimate the emissions associated with
different construction elements, depending on how the case country compares to the Euro-
pean average.
There is a large variation in methods, functional units, location and timeframe, sys-
tem boundary, assumptions about uptake rate and other potential sources of heterogene-
ity, which will affect the scaling up of mitigation potentials. Input-output-based studies,
for example, do not generally consider end-of-life impacts and the associated emissions,
but have a wider system boundary compared to life cycle assessments, which include only
the main processes albeit at a more detailed product level. Studies have shown that LCA
analyses often underestimate emission savings [73]. Broader socio-economic assumptions
within the analysed studies are also determining factors in estimating emission savings.
For example, Barrett and Scott [44] assume certain levels of economic growth, consump-
tion and decarbonisation of power in their emissions baseline, which will differ compared
to other studies. The scaling-up process assumes similar emission savings will be realised
in other EU countries (in proportion to the share of population), yet rates of economic
development, population growth and decarbonisation will differ. Going forward, more
advanced comparisons of CE-focused studies could consider replacement rates across the
nations, including the lifetimes of buildings and construction elements, as well as differ-
ences between new builds and existing building stock.
While we have added CO2 emission estimates from construction elements separately
to sector-wide estimates when evaluating the total contribution of CE strategies to staying
within the EU-27’s remaining carbon budget, the addition of the estimates is likely to lead
to double counting. For example, we have summed the results of all reuse studies, some
of which will consider reuse of the same construction element (not always specified in an
underlying analysed study). Additionally, presenting these savings as annual does not rec-
ognise that some CO2 emission estimates, for example from refurbishment, will not result
in extra emissions or emission savings annually but e.g. once a decade.
Although a comparison of studies needs to be performed with caution and we have
undoubtedly missed papers as a result of our search terms, such cross-study comparisons
are common, for example as part of regular overviews of state-of-the-art research by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other reviews [39]. This study provides
a starting point to evaluate the contribution of CE strategies towards carbon neutral targets
at scale, while future research in this area needs to focus on more sophisticated modelling
and comparison. Future research could look at the standardisation of methods for assessing
CE strategies. For example, there is merit in conducting large ensemble studies similar to
those in the areas of climate change and integrated assessment modelling, alongside criti-
cal studies on participation in a CE, for example, new business models and consumption
norms [74].
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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We have also not discussed the social and economic dimensions of CE and the rede-
sign of existing consumption cultures and linear business models. There are a variety of
critiques and limitations of the CE concept, its implementation and outcomes [20, 71,
72]. These demonstrate the enormity of the shift and extra research needed in how the
economy operates and society behaves; in the need to thoroughly and carefully assess the
sustainability outcomes; and in how to govern the transition in a very interlinked yet une-
ven global economy.
Decarbonising the construction sector is challenging given the rising demand for build-
ings and infrastructure, their long lifespan and their reliance on carbon-intensive steel and
cement. Given the need for urgent and ambitious emission reductions to achieve the Paris
Agreement climate goals of 1.52°C, circular economy strategies provide an additional
policy lever for improving the energy efficiency of buildings and decarbonising heating and
cooling. While many studies have started quantifying the mitigation potential of slowing,
closing and narrowing resource loops in the built environment in specific local and national
contexts, the combined potential to meet the EU’s climate goals remains underexplored.
Our study is the first to estimate the trade-offs between circular economy strategies and
climate change mitigation at the EU level. We applied a scaling-up process to a systematic
review of the mitigation potential of circular economy strategies in construction across the
EU (including the UK) to compare alternative strategies to each other and to the EU’s car-
bon budgets. While we found a significant potential for the circular economy to contribute
to a low-carbon economy, we also found the need to prioritise methods that enable similar
analyses at scale, an appraisal of what counts as circular (since many strategies add CO2
emissions instead of reducing them), alongside a critical assessment of the circular econo-
my’s wider environmental and related socio-economic impacts.
To ensure well-informed policies, our analysis highlights the need for better quality
data to measure circularity contributions towards decarbonisation. Otherwise, the lack of
monitoring and evaluation of construction sector choices towards achieving carbon budgets
would limit policymakers in this area. Improved data on material and carbon intensities and
on material flows would support a broader assessment of the impact of circular economy
measures in the European Union built environment on a net-zero target. Accordingly, we
recommend that European Union policy in the construction sector should include assessing
the potential trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences of implementing circular
economy. In addition, policy incentives are needed for combining circular economy strate-
gies (e.g. upcycling and design for disassembly), as this unification would likely lead to
higher CO2 emission savings per strategy than if they were implemented individually. Such
trade-off assessments and incentives would lead to more systemic thinking across policy
Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary material available at https:// doi.
org/ 10. 1007/ s43615- 023- 00257-2.
Author Contribution Conceptualisation: Maria Sharmina; methodology: Maria Sharmina, Dimitrios Pap-
pas, Kate Scott, Alejandro Gallego-Schmid; formal analysis and investigation: Maria Sharmina, Dimitrios
Pappas; writing—original draft preparation: Maria Sharmina, Dimitrios Pappas, Kate Scott, Alejandro
Gallego-Schmid; writing—review and editing: Maria Sharmina, Dimitrios Pappas, Kate Scott, Alejandro
Gallego-Schmid; funding acquisition: Maria Sharmina.
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Circular Economy and Sustainability
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Funding This work has been funded by the Sustainable Consumption Institute (grant reference: 118206) at
the University of Manchester.
Data Availability Available on request.
Ethics Approval and Consent to Participate Not applicable
Consent for Publication Not applicable
Competing Interests Alejandro Gallego-Schmid is an Editorial Board member of the Circular Economy and
Sustainability Journal.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,
which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long
as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Com-
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material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not
permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly
from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http:// creat iveco mmons. org/ licen ses/ by/4. 0/.
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Governments and policymakers worldwide have been setting targets to achieve an ambitious net-zero emission target by 2050 to tackle the pressing issue of climate change. However, achieving the net-zero emission target by 2050 depends on the factors determining the transition from traditional fossil fuel energy sources to renewables. In connection with this, policymakers have emphasised the need to transition from a linear to a circular economy. In this paper, we investigate the effectiveness of the progress towards a circular economy in reducing CO2 emissions and promoting environmental sustainability. To do so, we use annual historical data for a panel of 29 European countries from 2000 to 2020. Using an innovative identification strategy that adopts heteroscedastic-based instrumental variables and addresses endogeneity issues, we find that progress towards a circular economy significantly improves environmental quality via reducing CO2 emissions. Our findings suggest that business strategies promoting recycling and circular economy practices play an important role in environmental sustainability by reducing emissions.
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China's wide-ranging circular economy (CE) efforts have been studied multiple times from a range of perspectives. Synthesizing the relevant literature, this paper provides a critical reflection on the transition to a CE in China. Key factors for China's success in shifting towards a CE are seen in multi-level indicators and upscaling niches. This paper makes a novel contribution on limitations to progress, based on emerging evidence on CE projects that fail to sustain. Enriched by experts feedback, this paper critically addresses future challenges to a deep transition resulting from implementation gaps between early majorities and mass markets and coordination challenges arising through regional and sectoral differences. In light of China's commitments to climate neutrality by 2060, such challenges are considered serious. Based on feasible policy learning, the paper however proposes synergies between the CE and decarbonisation driven by efficiency improvements, comprehensive core indicators, upscaling and urban policies as trigger for deeper transformations. Finally the paper undertakes broader reflections and an outlook on evidence-orientated policy learning for a CE and decarbonisation in China. Specifications table Subject Area Environmental Science More specific subject area Policy Analysis Method name Systematic review process, focus group Name and reference of original method Tranfield, D., Denyer, D. and Smart, P. (2003) 'Towards a methodology for developing evidence-informed management knowledge by means of systematic review',
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The circular economy (CE) has become a trend because concern has arisen regarding the end of life of several products and the reduction of CO2 emissions in many processes. Since the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is one of the biggest generators of environmental impacts, there is a need to apply the CE concept to the industry in order to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the role of different tools that are used to integrate CE strategies to reduce GHG emissions by the AEC industry is still unknown in the scientific literature.The purpose of this paper is to carry out a systematic literature review on the theme and analyze the following seven tools: (1) life cycle assessment—LCA; (2) building information modeling—BIM; (3) building environmental certifications—BEC; (4) building materials passports—BMP; (5) waste management plan—WMP; (6) augmented reality—AR; and (7) virtual reality—VR. A total of 30 papers were reviewed, and it was observed that, in terms of CE strategies and climate change mitigation, the vast majority can be classified as closing loops and are mainly related to recycling and reuse at the end of life and the use of recycled materials. Considering the building’s stakeholders, constructors, researchers, and designers can be the main users and, consequently, those that most benefit from the use of the evaluated tools. The integration between LCA, BIM, and BMP was also observed. Finally, as one of the main contributions of this research, other types of integration among the analyzed tools are proposed. These proposals seek to improve and update the tools and also address the need to educe GHG emissions.
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The rising concern about climate change and other challenges faced by the planet led society to look for different design solutions and approaches towards a more balanced relationship between the built and natural environment. The circular economy is an effective alternative to the linear economic model inspired by natural metabolisms and the circular use of resources. This research explores how innovative strategies can be integrated for evaluating local urban and industrial wastes into sustainable building materials. A literature review is conducted focusing on circular design strategies, re-use, recycle, and waste transformation processes. Then, a methodology for the selection of upcycled and re-used building materials is developed based on Ashby’s method. A total of thirty-five types of partition walls, which include plastic, wood, paper, steel, aluminium, and agricultural wastes, are evaluated using a multi-criteria decision aid (M-MACBETH). Among these solutions, ten types of walls show high-performance thermal and sound isolation, fourteen types are effective for coating, and two exhibit structural reliability. Regardless of their functional limitations, the proposed solutions based on waste materials bear great potential within the construction industry.
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This study evaluates carbon emissions of construction and demolition (C&D) waste generated by building refurbishment, using a life cycle assessment approach through a case study project in China. Three waste management scenarios were developed for a building refurbishment project in the city of Suzhou. Scenario 1 is under the business-as-usual C&D waste management practice in China; scenario 2 is based on the open-ended 3R strategy, which focuses on the downstream impact of waste; and scenario 3 considers both the upstream and downstream impact of waste. The results reveal that the composition of the waste generated from building refurbishment projects is different from construction and demolition projects. In the life cycle of C&D waste management of building refurbishment projects, the refurbishment material stage generates the highest carbon emissions compared to the dismantlement, refurbishment construction, and refurbishment material end of life stages. Scenario 1 produces higher carbon emissions than scenario 2, but the difference is not significant in the whole life cycle of the building refurbishment project, whereas carbon emissions for scenario 3 are significantly less than both scenario 1 and scenario 2. The study finds the reason for this difference is that scenario 1 and scenario 2 are based on a linear economy that relies on unsustainable demand for raw materials, whereas scenario 3 is based on a circular economy that uses upcycled materials to substitute for raw materials and considers waste management from a cradle to cradle perspective. This study fills a research gap by evaluating carbon emissions of different waste management strategies for building refurbishment projects, which are expected to be an increasing portion of overall construction activity in China for the foreseeable future.
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This paper presents a reasoned account of the critiques addressed to the circular economy and circular business models. These critiques claim that the circular economy has diffused limits, unclear theoretical grounds, and that its implementation faces structural obstacles. Circular economy is based on an ideological agenda dominated by technical and economic accounts, which brings uncertain contributions to sustainability and depoliticizes sustainable growth. Bringing together these critiques demonstrates that the circular economy is far from being as promising as its advocates claim it to be. Circularity emerges instead as a theoretically, practically, and ideologically questionable notion. The paper concludes by proposing critical issues that need to be addressed if the circular economy and its business models are to open routes for more sustainable economic development.
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Renewable energy capacity in Africa is expected to reach 169.4 GW by 2040 from 48.5 GW in 2019. The growth of the sector necessitates a re-evaluation of the environmental impacts of renewable energy on the continent to inform mitigation decisions. This study presents the first literature review of the life cycle assessments of renewable energy in Africa and gives an in-depth analysis of environmental issues that are specific to Africa's renewable energy sector. It performs a systematic assessment of literature on the topic, examines the state-of-the-art, and critically evaluates environmental impacts on the continent, implications of methodological choices, gaps, challenges, and compares the findings with other regions. Climate change has extensively been researched in the studies due to high policy priorities on decarbonisation. Other relevant impact categories such as resource depletion in non-closed loop systems, ecotoxicity from recycling emissions, or ecosystem degradation from landfill leachate are not fully explored despite the end-of-life being potentially a major burden for the continent. Choice of functional units and multifunctional processes give wide variations in the magnitude of environmental impacts for similar technologies and, therefore, have implications for decision-making. For example, similar biodiesel jatropha systems with energy- and mass-based functional units give a difference of about 16% in climate change potential. To ensure that life cycle assessment results apply to mitigation decisions in Africa, studies should consider methodological issues such as lack of transparency in inventories, incomplete coverage of life cycle stages and impact categories, and missing databases adapted for the African context.
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The presence of hazardous materials hinders the circular economy in construction and demolition waste management. However, traditional environmental investigations are costly and time-consuming, and thus lead to limited adoption. To deal with these challenges, the study investigated the possibility of employing registered records as input data to achieve in situ hazardous building materials management at a large scale. Through characterizing the eligible building groups in question, the risk of unexpected cost and delay due to acute abatement could be mitigated. Merging the national building registers and the environmental inventory from renovated and demolished buildings in the City of Gothenburg, a training dataset was created for data validation and statistical operations. Four types of inventories were evaluated to identify the building groups with adequate data size and data quality. The observations’ representativeness was described by plotting the distribution of building features between the Gothenburg dataset and the training dataset. Evaluating the missing data and the positive detection rates affirmed that reports and protocols could locate hazardous materials in the building stock. The asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-containing materials with high positive detection rates were highlighted and discussed. Moreover, the potential inventory types and building groups for future machine learning prediction were delineated through the cross-validation matrix. The novel study contributes to the method development for assessing the risk of residual hazardous materials in buildings.
Circular Economy frameworks have become central to debates and interventions that aim to reduce global resource use and environmental despoilment. As pathways to both systemic and micro-scale transformations, there remain many challenges to making Circular Economy actionable. One such challenge is facilitating the emergence of the ‘circular consumer’. Here, we are all encouraged to shift everyday practices to consume new products and services and/or participate in the ‘Sharing Economy’: all of which are claimed, in some prominent debates, to automatically offer more ‘convenience’ for the consumer. In response, this paper argues that viewing such debates through the lens of Consumption Work offers a different picture of what it takes to be, and what we need to know about, the circular consumer. Consumption Work refers to the labour integral to the purchase, use, re-use and disposal of goods and services. This paper argues that the nature and scope of such work has been underplayed in Circular Economy debates to date, and that becoming a circular consumer requires varied and unevenly distributed forms of Consumption Work, which in turn, has significant implications for the success of Circular Economy. This paper thus proposes a research agenda into this topic, outlining five, inter-related, critical issues that a Circular Economy research agenda must address, including questions of who undertakes Consumption Work; to what ends; and how its multiple forms are coordinated within and beyond the household.
The circular economy is entirely in line with the European Commission’s long-term strategy aimed at moving toward an economy without any climate impact by 2050 (European Commission, 2018). Yet, to our knowledge, there is little work that analyzes the impact of the circular economy on CO2 emissions in Europe. The objective of this study is to analyze, at the level of the European Union (EU-15), the impact of the circular economy on CO2 emissions using an Autoregressive-Distributed Lag model (ARDL). The results of the study over the period 2000-2015 show that, in the long term, circular economy practices tend to reduce CO2 emissions, while in the short term, the effect is the opposite. The short-term results also question the modalities of our economic growth and the need to find a consensus between “efficiency and sufficiency” in order to limit resource consumption and CO2 emissions.