Earnings, jobs and innovation: the role of recycling in a green economy

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

1 Recycling and the green economy

  • A green economy balances economic goals with a focus on social equity and maintaining environmental systems.
  • Recycling contributes to a green economy in numerous ways, including enhancing resource efficiency, reducing environmental impacts from raw material extraction, generating jobs and business opportunities and ensuring secure supplies of essential resources.
  • Recycling also represents a key means of implementing the EU's Europe 2020 strategy, particularly the flagship initiative on shifting to a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth.

1.1 The green economy and the economic downturn

In recent years, the term 'green economy' has emerged in the context of policy discussions on recovering from the global economic downturn in 2008. The precise meaning of the term (and related concepts such as 'green growth' and 'green new deal') has been a matter for debate. However, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has recently helped structure and inform discussions by elaborating a working definition. According to UNEP (2011a):

A green economy is one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one which is low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive.

In a green economy, growth in income and employment should be driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. These investments need to be catalysed and supported by targeted public expenditure, policy reforms and regulation changes.

The development path should maintain, enhance and, where necessary, rebuild natural capital as a critical economic asset and as a source of public benefits, especially for poor people whose livelihoods and security depend on nature.

In the EU, the European Commission's response to the economic crisis includes the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth (European Commission, 2010a). The strategy's links to the green economy concept are numerous, although arguably most evident in its 'Resource efficient Europe flagship initiative', which aims to support the shift towards a resource efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth (European Commission, 2011).

Despite the recent surge in interest, however, it is clear that 'green economy' is not an entirely new concept. The terms 'green economy', 'sustainable economy', 'green growth' and 'sustainable growth' started to appear in policy discourse at around the same time as 'sustainable development' — in the IUCN's World Conservation Strategy (IUCN, 1980), the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) and at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992).

In some of the earlier studies, the term 'green economy' was used as a synonym for sustainable development and as UNEP's definition above makes clear, the links are abundant. A green economy balances economic goals with a focus on social equity and maintaining environmental systems. It also recognises that an economy's potential to generate incomes is largely determined by various forms of capital, including (most fundamentally) natural capital — ecosystems that deliver a huge array of enormously valuable goods and services, if they are properly maintained (Figure 1.1).

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