Policy Paper §7: Concentric Urban Circularity as a Solution to Telecoupled Externalities of EU’s Green Economy Transition


Policy Paper §7: Concentric Urban Circularity as to Telecoupled Externalities of EU’s Green Economy Transition, Teodor Kalpakchiev, the-enpi.org


The Circular Economy can be said to have emerged out of the oftentimes illicit or under-documented secondary resource flows to China, Indonesia, Malaysia and other East and Southeast Asian Economies. The exorbitant pressures on these economies triggered several disruptions and trends, such as the grand Chinese waste-to-energy capacity, which can be said to have induced also the Chinese corporate state-led electrification. In the Korean and Japanese case, where the land scarcities are an acute problem, the rates of recyclability and innovation related with it have led to possibly the highest rates of resource effectiveness. At the other end, countries from Southeast Asia are still struggling to redefine value as stemming from secondary markets. With EU’s gradual homogenization towards an OECD block, waste export restrictions are taking its toll and intra-EU capacities for revalorization remain stagnant. Albeit the focus on recycling waste streams is a much necessary one, it reduces the disruptive pressures on creating actual patterns of resource exchange within cities and from peri-urban and agri-peripheral localities to cities.

Why is the latter so important? When we speak about the waste hierarchy and the 3/6/9Rs, avoiding the actual removal of secondary resources from the active economy is much undesired, as it impedes the transformation of static cities into living organisms with urban metabolism. In a world, where industry 4.0 and agriculture 4.0 are paving the way towards complete automatisation of production processes through the usage of automated vehicles (tractors, ships, trucks, cars, machines, drones), the logistical setup and the patterns of resource redirection remain in the hands of machine learning and reverse logistics. The ecology of waste as a nexus is a vital element of the sustainability transitions and can be seen from multiple perspectives.

The bioeconomy is a good example of transformative disruption. Quintessentially, with a planetary prosperity sufficient for the sustenance of one-fifth of its population in a developed economy scenario, food as feedstock would be the most contentious resource. The bioeconomy already includes several examples of added-value innovation, such as aquaponics (microscale), biorefineries (mesoscale) or vertical gardening (macroscale). For these to work sustainably, however, one would definitely need to further delineate the biowaste stream into compostable, replenishable and edible sub-streams, which can best work without human intervention with the help of machine learning. The bioeconomy holds several keys to sustainability – while intensification versus the horticulture debate is inherently related to the alternative land use scenarios, this is even more true when we think about food as feedstock for biofuels.

Globalization has triggered an enormous momentum in coordinating value chain, coordinating and learning mechanisms. However, as microeconomic optimization does not necessarily internalize ecological or anthropocentric concerns, subjecting trade to a range of instruments such as voluntary certifications, international agreements, collaborative and participatory mechanisms, tariff and non-tariff barriers is meant to adjust the negative environmental effects of EU’s domestic greening of the economy.

Visualization of Telecoupling (Liu et al., 2014)

Long-distance relationships designated as telecoupling are oftentimes caused by the drive for sustainability leadership in the EU, which counts on redistribution of wealth towards renewable energy, renewing resource flows, optimizing resource use, etc. However, as land on the continent is relatively scarce and there is competition for its use (e.g. urbanization, food, biofuels, photovoltaic plants), which forces is to count on imports of biofuels from Eastern Europe or further, of renewable energy from North Africa, but also leads to excesses in (oftentimes processed) food that is shipped towards the rest of the world, while wholemeal grains, fruits and vegetables with little to no added value for the produced (had it not been for the fairtrade certification schemes) are imported.  Agents working within these relationships are government officials, shipment and logistics companies, workers unions as well as companies acquiring land both within the EU and abroad.

Effects that manifest telecoupling of anthropocentric governance and the ecological balance are, for example, EU’s rising environments for the increase of biofuels within the transport mix, heavy planting of palm oil, maize, sugarcane that damage traditional subsistence and the structure of the economy. Oftentimes the plantations are used as cash crops that induce energy in bioplants, while having additional exhaustive effects on the soil and are polluting rivers and the rest of the environment with pesticides. In target countries, telecoupling also results in blurring the rural-urban divide, as increased travels between those in order to sell/buy necessary resources produce new emissions (oftentimes from old vehicles).

Trade of Land
Land Trading Networks (Seaquist et al, 2014)

The question is whether and which instruments the EU could use to induce a more nuanced trading regime that makes use of the non-reciprocal relationship towards countries in need of economic growth, but with stagnant governance reforms. Interestingly, post-sovereign formations elsewhere oftentimes forego the ability to adjust such responses to global demand, as with a non-completed single market, reduced regulatory capacity and oftentimes insufficient transfer of sovereignty they do not manage to induce action in state actors. Hereby come handy namely the horizontal and vertical anthropocentric coordination efforts, as they aim to improve the understanding of local externalities of the EU’s external trade regime. These feedback loops are meant to derive the causal relationships that exist and potentially address them.

From the perspective of distant flows of goods that induce carbon emissions from transportation, as well as the intensified land use, a circular approach would entail greater use of the principle of bio-regionalism, resp. local sourcing of goods, which in this case would mean preference for goods produced in the vicinity. This can be done via EU Neighbourhood-wide labelling for origin, as well as differentiated tariffs between associated and countries with no particular status. For example, nuts grown in North Africa would receive preference than those grown in South America. When we speak of waste shipments, resp. end-of-live vehicles or computers that are oftentimes intended for repairs in Africa, but end on dumpsites, there should be sufficient waste revalorization facilities, whose secondary market resources should have preferential buyout prices on the EU market. The same would apply to biofuels, which are normally shipped from sugarcane grown in Brazil or Palm Oil grown in South-East Asia. These can easily be substituted with reprocessed oil for cooking that’s collected from industrial production sites and franchise chains. As for biofuels produced, e.g. in everything but arms countries or simply trade partners, these should be preferably redirected to the closest possible country where demand exists. In order to avoid damage to soils and land, DG Trade could assign a label or tariff reduction for crops rotation and bio-production.

Additionally, from a governance perspective one should deem the expansion of carbon-wide emissions and forestry clean development mechanisms (EU ETS, FLEGT) by incorporating a networked connectivity approach. To achieve faster replication of circular solutions, a city-to-city network between EU’s Eurozone core, its eastern member states and the neighbourhood can be a testing ground for replication of concentric dimensions of integration, whereby the tri-level governance schematic in Brussels can be substantiated with tri-city urban circularity patnerships with rotation of the right to initiate decentralized pooling of resources, authority and sovereignty. 

Supportive policies:

  • Accelerating bioregionalism through labelling, certification and tariff schemes
  • Tri-city policy partnership with rotating presidency
  • Incorporate neighbourhood countries into clean development mechanisms
  • Transform the EU neighbourhood into a porous resource retention filter with sufficient waste revalorization capacities and facilitated secondary material imports from EU
  • Use visualization and communication tools to ensure wider awareness of spill-over systems as triggers and regulators of telecoupling

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