A transition towards a circular economy is key to not exceeding the carrying capacity of our environment. Finland wants to be a pioneer in this respect, but statistics on the consumption of natural resources show that we have a lot to learn compared to many other EU countries. Circular economy experts from strategic research projects have just finished evaluating Finland’s new circular economy strategy.
The proposal for the new strategic programme to promote a circular economy, which was published in January 2021, seeks to significantly change our use of natural resources and our economy. The proposal’s impacts extend far and wide, which is why the authors wanted an independent evaluation.
The evaluation was performed by a group of 22 experts representing a range of research centres and universities. Strategic research projects and programmes played a crucial role in building enough understanding of the potential effects of the proposed measures and potential obstacles to the implementation of the strategy in the short space of time allowed for the evaluation. Due to the nature of the programme and the proposed measures, only qualitative and conditional impact assessments could be produced.
Setting quantitative targets is one of the leading circular economy policy measures outlined in the programme. The goal is for Finland’s consumption of primary raw materials in 2035 to not exceed the 2015 level. The programme also proposes to double Finland’s resource productivity and circular material use rate by 2035.
The issue of quantitative targets proved to be a contentious one among the authors, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry ended up dissenting on this objective. The evaluators’ conclusion was that setting quantitative targets is justified in the light of the direction and extent of the change sought by the programme. The challenge lies in the lack of unambiguous and universal indicators similar to those that are used to measure the progress of, for example, climate policy. Furthermore, no scenario analyses of the conditions for and the consequences of meeting the targets had been conducted during the preparation of the programme. These issues therefore need to be revisited once the implementation of the programme begins in earnest.
Another significant point raised by the evaluators was the emphasis given to positive incentives for achieving the targets. The programme contains very few measures that would restrict or make more expensive activities that are considered problematic for the circular economy. However, a systemic change of this magnitude is likely to require the dismantling of at least some of the current economic structures that rely on intensive exploitation of virgin natural resources. This calls for legislative reforms and the introduction of “sticks” as well as “carrots”.
The importance of the circular economy as a policy is a relatively new concept, and strategic research projects in this field still have many knowledge gaps to fill and a lot of work to do. The projects have the potential to produce new information that can be useful in evaluating the success of the strategy and monitoring its progress in the future. The collaborative approach taken to the preparation of the programme is a stepping stone on a path that strategic research projects can help to chart.