The waste, the city and the summit

Written by: Stefan Mechnig, Ralph Schneider

The climate summit in Dubai is primarily about expanding green energy. However, in the fight against global warming, the world's cities should become centers of the circular economy by satisfying their hunger for resources by, among other things, turning their waste into raw materials.

Dubai: Hardly any other city has developed so rapidly, from a fishing village on the edge of the desert to a pulsating metropolis. This makes it a symbol of human creative will and ability. And as the venue for the world climate conference COP28, it is the perfect meeting place to think about the future of the world's cities. This can only lie in decisive action for more sustainability. Because urban centers bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for climate change, resource exploitation and environmental destruction; they account for more than 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

More and more people are moving in the metropolises in search of freedom, development and diversion, advancement and prosperity. There are currently 4.4 billion city dwellers – that is more than half the world's population. By 2050, the proportion is expected to rise to almost 70 percent. At the same time, the number of huge metropolises continues to increase at a breathtaking pace. While there are almost 580 megacities like Dubai around the world today, there will probably be over 700 by 2030. The downside of this development is a spiral of resource extraction, fast-moving consumption and, in the end, more waste.

COP theme day on urbanization and climate

Conversely, megacities play a leading role in protecting the earth from ever-increasing heating and in shaping a sustainable society. At the two-week climate conference there will also be a special theme day for this important complex: On December 6th, politicians, donors and experts from all over the world will address the consequences of urbanization for the climate.

There are many starting points for reducing greenhouse gases and achieving climate neutrality in urban areas. There is, of course, the number one topic of the entire summit: the accelerated expansion of renewable energies and energy efficiency. Switching city traffic to electric mobility, heating and cooling buildings with wind and solar power, insulating them well and much more. But there are also measures that go beyond life in the here and now, i.e., beyond the use phase of houses. Measures that start before and afterwards, in the extraction of construction materials and in the question of what ultimately becomes of these substances and the raw materials embedded in them.

At the beginning of the life cycle, it's about producing materials that are as climate neutral as possible: cement, glass, wood, steel, plastic and everything else that is needed for construction should have the smallest possible climate footprint. Plastics, for example, which are important for building insulation, among other things, are increasingly being made from renewable raw materials such as plant biomass. Another source for replacing fossil resources such as petroleum is old products and waste, which should be used to create new materials to the largest possible extent.

Recycling enormous amounts of construction waste

This leads to the climate protection lever further back in the life cycle and to a special aspect that is still poorly understood: the shadowy existence of construction and demolition waste. In the European Union, for example, it is at the top of the total waste generated, with a share of 25 to 30 percent. Disposing of large amounts of heavy waste is expensive, and many cities find it difficult to place it in landfills due to cost and space constraints. And it doesn't make much sense because waste is unused raw material. It is therefore logical that the EU wants to promote, among other things, the identification, separation and collection of this waste and thus boost recycling.

It is also high time. Overall, the world is only 7.2 percent circular – less than a few years ago. To change that, it is not just waste management that needs to be expanded. Recycling should be comprehensively adopted in the construction sector and the upstream industries such as chemicals and plastics as a future-oriented path in the manufacture of products. This includes that construction materials, and all other products, buildings and infrastructures derived from them, must be designed from the outset in such a way that they can be used later let it be recycled.

Setting a signal for the circular economy

In short, the circular economy must become the global guiding principle. And the summit in Dubai should set a signal for circularity to be pushed forward intensively and implemented comprehensively. This is also the goal of the Global Impact Coalition, a new alliance in the chemical sector. Led by the CEOs of international companies, including Covestro, and set out to pave the industry's path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Dubai itself has already adopted the concept of the circular economy. It is now in 22nd place in a recent ranking of the world's top 30 cities driving the transition to circular living. This puts the capital of the United Arab Emirates in the company of other metropolises such as London, Seattle, Buenos Aires and Beijing.

The transformation of cities – that is our big lever for climate neutrality and a truly sustainable future.

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