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The smart way for cities to reach net zero

More and more cities are committing to going climate-neutral. The circular economy can help bring them closer to their goal. How? Martina Blum and Ronny Hoffmann share their thoughts in this article, originally published in the Swiss Handelszeitung.

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  • The big challenge for cities is to reduce both direct emissions within city boundaries and indirect emissions that originate outside city boundaries or national borders, in the upstream chains of the energy, goods and services consumed.
  • In order to realise this, we not only need a sufficiency strategy but also a dramatic reduction of CO₂ emissions over the entire life cycle chain of a product.
  • Cities and businesses must first gain an understanding of the actual environmental impact of products and services so that they can then develop more sustainable business models.
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Many of the larger Swiss cities have set themselves the goal of becoming climate-neutral over the coming years. The city of Zurich, for example, is aiming to achieve net zero by 2040. But what does achieving net zero actually involve? First of all, cities need to tackle direct emissions within their boundaries. For the most part, these result from a building stock that predominantly uses fossil fuels, and from fossil fuel-powered (private) transport.

Certain areas have already gone electric, for example large sections of public transport. However, when it comes to heating buildings and private mobility, developments are lagging behind – although positive improvements can be seen here.

It is important to recognise, though, that direct emissions within the city boundaries do not constitute the majority of CO₂ emissions. Indirect emissions are accrued outside the city boundaries or national borders, in the upstream chains of the energy, goods and services consumed.

The big challenge for cities is to reduce emissions that are produced by consumption. In July 2022, this realisation led the city of Zurich to become the first city in Switzerland to sign the ‘Circular Cities Declaration’, pledging to play its part in the circular economy.

To lower CO₂ emissions produced as a result of consumption over the long term, we not only need a sufficiency strategy but also a dramatic reduction of CO₂ emissions over the entire life cycle chain of a product.

Circular economy – but how?

The goal of the circular economy is to create a closed loop of both technological and biological resources. The strategy is focused on achieving the greatest possible value retention. This is achieved by recycling being viewed as a last resort in a product’s life cycle. The primary aim is to extend and intensify product use through replacement parts, reuse, reconditioning and repair.
 

What a city can do in concrete terms

The benefits of the circular economy are obvious. Smart, concrete actions cities can take to achieve their net zero goal in the most efficient way possible include: 

  • Encourage the city’s residents to be more aware of their consumption. 
  • Reduce the amount of waste and prevent surplus circulation of products and materials by promoting reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling. 
  • Set an example by using recyclable materials and products and give preferential treatment to production and design that save resources across the entire life cycle.
  • Support innovative companies in the development sustainable product development and the use of recyclable products.
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First of all, it is crucial to gain an understanding of the actual environmental impact of the product. This can be achieved by carrying out life cycle assessments of the existing products and services. These identify the points in the product’s life cycle where the biggest negative impact on the environment occurs. Analysis of this kind provides a basis for redeveloping and enhancing the products. A range of different design principles can be applied here to bring the products in line with the idea of the circular economy:

  1. No use of chemicals that are harmful to the environment or human health 
  2. Selection of recyclable materials and avoidance of mixed materials 
  3. Modular construction, simple to dismantle
  4. Durability 
  5. Simple maintenance and repair
  6. Cascade use of raw materials 
  7. Well-planned reverse logistics 
  8. Efficient use of energy

New business models for success

Applying these principles prepares products for use in the circular economy. It is also important that businesses not only modify and redesign their products in line with the circular economy but that they adapt their business models too. If they don’t manage to do this, there is a risk that the longer life of the products will result in a sharp downturn in sales. The circular economy demands new, disruptive business models.

One particular characteristic of these models is that ownership of the product remains with the manufacturing company rather than with the users as we have come to expect. Products will increasingly be offered as a service as a result, shifting the focus to accessibility and the actual use of the product.

This significantly changes the business relationship with customers as we see a shift from one-time contact at the point of sale to new business models with a long-term customer relationship.

Originally published under the title: Kreislaufwirtschaft ist der Schlüssel zur Klimaneutralität | Handelszeitung

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Martina Blum
Contact person for Switzerland

Martina Blum

Principal Business Consultant

Martina Blum is Principal Business Consultant Sustainability Innovation and since Mai 2022 at Zühlke. She has over twenty years of consulting experience in environmental and sustainability strategy, evaluation and management.

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