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Circular Jobs: Making the circular economy transition work for people

Elon Musk’s recent commitment of $100 million for carbon capture technology sparked a little debate on #ClimateTwitter. While well-intentioned, some commented this is a standard tech-solutionist approach: “throw money” at technology to tackle systemic problems. Though the discussion is, of course, more nuanced, ClimateTwitter reminded us this week to always view climate and environmental issues through an intersectional lens.

The “Doughnut”: The green ring represents a sweet-spot where our socio-economic systems should be placed, such that they respect (external) planetary boundaries, and fulfil (internal) societal needs.

This applies equally to the circular economy. Often touted as at least a trillion-dollar opportunity, the circular economy’s defining principles focus on environmental outcomes: design out waste; keep materials in use; build regenerative systems. If we’ve learnt one thing from the environmental movement, it is that we cannot tackle these issues in silos. Even the most resource-efficient circular solution is no good if it doesn’t work with people, with existing power structures, and considers perverse incentives.

The circular economy opportunity will only be truly realised when people and jobs are put at the heart of it, with a “just” transition (Kate Raworth advocates for exactly this in Doughnut Economics). To our advantage, the circular economy presents the potential to create more jobs and livelihoods, than to disrupt them.

What kind of job opportunities will the circular economy create?

Advancing a Circular transition is already creating jobs across sectors and disciplines, such as:

  1. Reverse logistics: Apple’s commitment to stop mining any new metals implies that the company will invest heavily in its “reverse” supply chain, that enables recycling and remanufacturing. The effect of such industry giants (across tech, fashion, plastics, and others) going circular will ripple across their supply chain and logistics that make it happen - triggering jobs along the way. A FICCI report estimates that plastic waste recycling alone can create over 14 lakh jobs in India.

  2. Design and innovation: The circular economy calls for a radical rethink of products and systems in use today. Designers across industries - be it architecture, product design, fashion, engineering or services - are essential to accelerate creating products and services that keep materials in loop. Beyond direct design jobs, systemic effects are driving job-creation in research and innovation for materials and digital technology to support the circular transition.

  3. Innovative business models: The world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, launched a circular economy fund in 2019. The commitment is a signal of change, and of demand for circular businesses that can generate investable returns. As funding for circular economy grows, viable business models and innovative finance jobs will be critical to support the upscaling and viability of circular solutions.

This is but a snapshot of the global jobs ecosystem being born out of the circular transition. In the Netherlands for instance, 8.6% of all jobs are already identified as enablers of a circular economy. Beyond these, consider associated jobs outside of the service industry such as those in circular marketplaces, manufacturing technology and supply chains across sectors, waste management, entrepreneurial and investment opportunities, among others. Some circular skills will be completely new, while others will borrow from existing jobs and skillsets.

A circular economy will create jobs. How can we prepare for them in India?

The climate movement in India, for instance, gives us headway in understanding how an enabling environment for a people-centric circular economy can be created. Lessons can be learnt from calls for a just transition from coal; and from the Government’s drastic efforts to upscale the renewables ecosystem.

Preparing for and promoting jobs in the circular transition in India can be aided by:

- Identifying a business case and co-benefits of circular enterprises that have a social focus

- Creating an enabling policy environment that promotes upskilling by mainstreaming circularity within disciplines

- Rolling-out financial incentives and procurement schemes that promote circularity, across industries and through entrepreneurship.

- Understanding jobs that will be possibly “lost” in a circular transition, and considering just alternatives before replacement. For instance, identifying the impact of a circular transition on the millions of informal waste workers - considering also the quality of jobs that enhance livelihoods

Especially in India, the circular economy transition can kill a few birds with one stone as we rebuild from the pandemic: enhancing livelihoods while addressing unemployment and environmental challenges. Rather than choosing between supporting the environment camp or the economy camp, we can capitalise on opportunities that make the two work in tandem with each other. Planning for a circular economy along with a just transition is just the need of the hour - how ready is India to make it happen?

About the Author

Kruti Munot is a Project Manager at GIZ, where she works with local governments in Africa on issues of climate change and urban development. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is based in Brussels, Belgium. Her interests lie in urban development, circular economy, and the role of financial institutions in driving sustainable development.

Links Cited Economy Report_OptVer.pdf

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