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The Natural Circular Economy

John Kirton,
Director, G20 Research Group;
Co-chair, T20 Task Force 2 on Climate Change, Clean Energy and the Environment
May 27, 2021

Presentation to a Roundtable Workshop on "Advancing the Circular Carbon Economy," sponsored by Think 20 Italy, ISPI and King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre, May 26, 2021.

The Contribution of the T20 to Nature-Based Solutions to Climate Change

The Think 20 (T20) is, and should be, much more than an ideas bank, where anyone can borrow what they want at any time. Its central purpose is to recommend to G20 leaders what they should adopt as commitments at their next summit and have their countries comply with, when they go back home.

By this standard, the T20 has had limited success, with few of its recommendations making a difference in this extended way.

In recent years Task Force 2 (TF2) on the environment has stood out among the 10 or so T20 task forces in attracting many more participants and policy briefs than the others. This reflects the growing importance and urgency of climate change. But proportionately few of the TF2 recommendations have been sent by the T20 as a whole as priorities to the G20 itself. And even fewer have been turned into G20 commitments and compliance.

This year, TF2 has selected 15 of the 130 proposals it has received, to send up to the T20 as a whole. These 15 policy briefs have admirably given greater attention to nature-based solutions serving as carbon sinks, rather than the old focus on the familiar emissions sources from fossil fuels, sometimes adding new technologies that have yet to prove their worth.

In particular, TF2's top 15 have added agriculture as an important component.

And it is relying more on the impressive work of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to show how nature-based solutions are essential to sustain and share the economic growth that so many poor people need and want.

There is no economic growth without growing nature — that is the fundamental fact.

The Potential and Possibilities Nature-Based Solutions for Accelerated Action


Nature is the ultimate circular economy. It creates value both by producing clean air, water and life itself and by removing the poisonous pollution that its use by humans brings, especially when they treat it as a free garbage dump. Treated properly, as a sink, shower or bathtub in which we and the planet cleanse and restore ourselves, nature can remove all the climate pollution we create. But we, and thus it, are far from doing this today.

Nature is now the 60% solution to controlling climate change. Ecosystems naturally, freely sequester 60% of humans' greenhouse gas emissions every year, according to the OECD's policy guide on Biodiversity, Natural Capital and the Economy. It could capture all of them if we stopped destroying it.

Since 1992, global gross domestic product per capita has increased more than 60%, while the value of natural capital stocks has decreased by at least 40%. We cannot get richer on a dying planet by steadily draining the capital in the natural bank account our ancestors gave to us.

Accelerated Action

We can accelerate the contribution of nature to mitigating climate change by setting three great goals, similar to those most G20 members now have for climate change itself. These are:

  1. Net zero for nature by 2030;
  2. Stop the loss of nature's most valuable components now; and
  3. Build back the bits that best remove the poisonous greenhouse gas emissions that are now making the planet too hot a place to live.

We should meet these goals by immediately accelerating six long-proven, low-cost, jobs-rich actions that all G20 countries and all their people can easily do. They are:

  1. Foster forests, by letting old-growth trees live and by growing another trillion trees by 2025;
  2. Preserve peatlands, which are much more powerful than forests in absorbing emissions, and where the world's peatlands superpowers of Russia, Canada and the United States can lead, with Indonesia helping too;
  3. Clean coasts, by sustaining seagrass, maximizing mangroves and welcoming the wetlands along the shores that every G20 country has, and that every small island developing state does too;
  4. Clean cities, by promoting parks, trees, plants and rivers there and ending the urban emissions that produce the air pollution that kills millions of people every year;
  5. Reinforce reliable renewables, such as geothermal, tidal and wave power, that provide power all the time, even when the sun and wind do not; and
  6. Minimize methane, by patching natural gas leaks and, above all, avoiding industrialized animal agriculture, by eating more plants and less meat.

The Role of the Circular Carbon Economy in Raising NDC Ambitions before COP26

The concept of the circular carbon economy plays a central role in raising, and realizing, the more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that all G20 and all United Nations members must make before the 26th Conference of the Parties meeting in Glasgow immediately following the G20's Rome Summit, including those on adaptation and the clean energy transition.

G7 Environment Ministers Meeting, 2021

On May 20–21, one half of the G20 members met in the G7's meeting of climate and environment ministers, to get a fast start on raising their ambition, and their accompanying actions, for the Glasgow Summit, now just five months away. They made 183 commitments, more than twice as many as they ever made before.

They called for more ambitious NDCs many times.

They also called for nature-based solutions for climate mitigation, adaptation and finance.

Circular Economy

The G7 ministers endorsed the concept of the circular economy as a guide in producing their more ambitious NDCs.

They promised "to progress actions to increase resource efficiency and transition to a more circular economy … to reduce the pressure and adverse impacts on our natural environment, reduce resource use, maximise the value of materials through a life-cycle approach, curb." 

They also specifically promised more sustainable food consumption and production, reduced food loss and waste, cleaner industrial energy and increased resource efficiency.

Agreed Nature-based Actions

In one highly binding commitment, the G7 ministers promised: "In addition to action on the ocean and forests, we commit to take urgent action across ecosystems, including soils, grasslands, savannah, drylands, wetlands, coral reefs, rivers, lakes, coastal dunes, peatland, seagrass beds, mangroves and saltmarshes, whilst ensuring that relevant safeguards are in place."

They dealt directly with the powerful, natural sinks of forests in 10 commitments; peatlands, for the first time, in one commitment; clean coasts by sustaining seagrass in two commitments; and maximizing mangroves in two commitments. They also dealt with clean cities in several commitments, and with minimizing methane in industrial agriculture, too.

But they missed reinforcing the reliable renewables.


So there is a strong base on which to build for G20 action in the coming months.

And some things for it to add.

To do so, let's hope they listen to the recommendations of T20 TF2, far more than they have in the past.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G20 Research Group, G7 Research Group and Global Health Diplomacy Program and co-director of the BRICS Research Group, all based at the University of Toronto. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. His most recent books include Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Routledge 2018), China's G20 Leadership (Routledge, 2016), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015), and Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa: Disease, Govenance, Climate Change, co-edted with Andrew F. Cooper, Franklyn Lisk and Hany Besada (Ashgate, 2014). Kirton is also co-editor with Madeline Koch of several publications on the G20, the G7 and global health governance, including G20 Saudi Arabia: The 2020 Riyadh Summit and G7 US: The 2020 Virtual Year, and, with the support of the World Health Organization, Health: A Political Choice — Act Now, Together, published by GT Media and the Global Governance Project.