Government and policy case studies
Examples of circular economy in policies.
In this episode, we hear from Costa Samaras from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to learn how policy is helping the circular economy to take hold in the USA.
Pippa Shawley 0:03
Transitioning to a circular economy requires a lot of actors at all levels. Over the last couple of episodes, we’ve heard about the role of arts and storytelling in showing what’s possible. To make change happen, we also need the backing of governments and policymakers. I’m Pippa, and in this episode, we’ll hear how the circular economy is emerging as critical to the USA's decarbonisation agenda. Costa Samaras, from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spoke to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Joss Bleriot at Summit 23, a gathering of the Foundation’s network, about the steps the US government is taking to decarbonise. But before we hear from them, I thought it might be useful to share a very basic reminder of some of the things discussed in this episode, especially for those of us who perhaps don’t follow US government policy too closely. Firstly: The Paris Agreement. You’ve probably heard of this one before. This was the landmark agreement made at COP21 in Paris in 2015 which set long-term goals to guide all nations to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius. President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement during his presidency, and President Biden’s administration has now rejoined it. Secondly: The CHIPS and Science Act. This was brought into law in 2022 to create incentives to produce semiconductors within the United States. Next: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, introduced in 2021, assigned public funds to invest in infrastructure, including a significant amount in public transportation. And finally: The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in 2022, which works alongside the CHIPS Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and directs federal funds towards lowering climate emissions and investing in clean energy. Phew! Now that’s cleared up, let’s hear from Joss and Costa. Joss began by asking how the topic of the circular economy emerged at US federal level, and how important it is to the Biden administration.
Costa Samaras 2:16
Well Joss, it may not seem apparent, but Circular Economy activities have been happening in the US government since at least 2009. With the Environmental Protection Agencies, with our national laboratories, with our universities, and with our innovators. And I think one of the challenges is they've all been going on in these different stovepipes, these different silos. And one of the roles of my team at the Office of Science and Technology Policy is to bring them all together and speak with one coherent vision about what's possible.
Joss Bleriot 2:44
That's interesting also to note that it is present in the CHIPS Act, it's present in the priorities for the 24 fiscal year, it's present in the Net Zero game changers initiative. It's very linked to decarbonisation, and when it emerged in Europe, it was mostly to do with material concerns. And that was across the board. It seems to be very focused on low carbon technology and netzero ambitions in the US. Why is that?
Costa Samaras 3:13
Well, on day one, President Biden made a commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement, and made a goal to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2050. So that's going to require an enormous mobilisation of resources, creativity and innovation. And so you mentioned some of the major policies that the administration has passed, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act. Together, they represent the most ambitious investment in climate and clean energy in history. And let me unpack it just for a second, I promise I'll be quick. So the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the CHIPS and Science Act are what we think of as, like, a supply push, we're building new factories, we're building infrastructure, we're putting knowledge into the market, and the Inflation Reduction Act is what we think of as a market pull. And so we're incentivizing consumers, businesses and others to bring new technologies online. Together, they're supercharged. And they create this type of environment where the the transition itself becomes circular. So why are we doing all this? Well, you asked how important it is to the United States Government for circular economy. It was said in the last session, but I want to say it again, right here, we cannot get to net zero without the principles of a circular economy, period. And so getting to net zero requires all the things that we're talking about here today, to advance to where we need to be. And the last thing I'll say, you mentioned the CHIPS Act. So this is kind of inside baseball. And I don't know if anybody else is going to listen to this one. Inside the CHIPS Act, there's a section that says - directs - my office, our office's director, to create strategies for priorities for a whole list of things to advance the competitiveness of the country. And one of those things is principles for transition to a circular economy. So we, by law, have to do this now. And and that's why we're fired up and getting excited about it.
Joss Bleriot 5:08
So what's the timeline and how many people are working on this?
Costa Samaras 5:11
You know, you know, I was trying to count up the agencies that are working on circular economy across the US government. And we have the Net Zero game changer initiative, which has transitioned to a circular economy as one of our bedrock five priority areas. And so when we looked across the government, remember our office is in charge of coordinating all across the different agencies, and we asked folks to raise their hand, if they're thinking about it, they're interested, they're working on it. And we got a flood of attention. People inside and outside the government in United States are excited about the transition to a circular economy and what it means, and so your question is kind of what agencies are working on it. The the challenge I would throw back to our own government and to governments around the world is, why isn't every agency working on it right now?
Joss Bleriot 5:59
So as a whole of government agenda, is it something that you feel has a lot of traction? Or do you think that there are departments who feel it's not their responsibility? It's somebody else, it's a standalone topic. Do you manage to really make it come across as a horizontal topic that everybody should be worrying about?
Costa Samaras 6:17
One of the things I like to say and think about is climate and environment is not an environmental problem. It's a systems challenge. And circular economy is one of the solutions. One of the one of the ways that we're going to tackle that system, systems challenge. So when we take it out of the environmental box, and we think about all the ways that climate environment affect competitiveness, jobs, security, resilience, equity, opportunity, that's the way that folks get excited about diving into what's necessary to transition to a circular economy.
Joss Bleriot 6:50
Do you feel there's a real need to make the economic case to prove the viability of it? Or is it generally well understood, and it's only a matter of channelling the right investments to the right place?
Costa Samaras 7:01
Well, we don't have to make the economic case, it's already been made. The Inflation Reduction Act is already crowding in hundreds of billions of dollars of new investment in a new and regenerative industrialization, for a clean energy economy that's built from the bottom up and the middle out. So that is what drives markets. That's what drives actors and investors. And we're now we can see with our own eyes, that a clean energy economy is an economy for everyone. And it's an economy that everyone wants to be a part of.
Joss Bleriot 7:32
What are the next steps that you are currently working on? And what can we expect to come out of these various initiatives?
Costa Samaras 7:37
You know, at without revealing any nonpublic information, we are actively pursuing the action plans that are necessary to build circularity into our industrialization by design. And so all of the investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act that are building new factories for batteries, building new processes for chemicals, building new processes for steel, aluminium, cement, textiles, food, all of those have circular principles embedded by design.
Joss Bleriot 8:11
Interestingly, I noticed that the word regenerative, which we've heard a lot today is also used in the administration. And I was wondering if you could give us your take, your definition, what it usually means when you sit around the table with your colleagues and you throw it around.
Costa Samaras 8:28
Let me throw it in, in a slightly different direction. So I've travelled all around the world. But believe it or not, this is my first trip to London proper. And so yesterday, I was walking around I did the tourist stuff, amazing city. And as a scientist and engineer, I really was humbled in walking in the footsteps and seeing the plaques and markers of the great folks of the Industrial Revolution and the scientific revolution. Folks like Lovelace and codes, and Newton and Joule, and Faraday, and others. And so I think about what they would want to see for this fourth industrial revolution. And really, that's what we're asking. It's nothing short of a fourth industrial revolution. Regenerative means moving from a take-make-waste economy to a circular economy. Regenerative means working with nature and not against it. Regenerative means building an economy that works for everyone, and leaves nobody behind. So we are fired up about the circular economy, the United States of America, and we're ready to work with our partners and allies across the world to transition to a net zero world.
Pippa Shawley 9:37
It’s great to hear Costa fired up about the possibilities of a circular economy. If you’d like to learn more about the role policy plays in the transition, you can find links in the show notes of this episode. Thanks for listening, we’ll be back soon with more stories from the circular economy.
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