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Transitioning to a Circular Economy: Measuring Where to Start

How cities can build a circular economy can seem complex and perplexing — but it helps to think of local-level circularity as expanding on the “Three R’s” many of us learned in school: to regenerate, rethink, reuse, reduce, and recover. In this way, regeneration, including of the ecosystems upon which our society depends, and rethinking how our economies operate in terms of climate impact, move to the forefront. 

In a recent project with the Town of Philipstown, in New York’s Hudson Valley, ICLEI USA dove into both of these circularity components, regeneration and rethinking, to develop an innovative GHG inventory that added layers of land use considerations and household consumption patterns to the standard approach to emissions accounting. These additional lenses made room for even more local data, including on:

  1. Lifecycle carbon-emission associated with the goods and services residents consume
  2. Estimates of the work of natural resources to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere
  3. Traditional approaches that quantify emissions associated with transportation, energy production and other sectors.

This work serves as a framework for other cities beginning their transition to a circular economy. As Philipstown Supervisor, Richard Shea says, “Every journey begins with setting a destination. Even before that, one needs to know where they are.”

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Each City’s Circular Economy Will be Unique

The circular economy is not one size fits all. Even with a framework, cities must understand the material and energy flows of their unique economies. Supply chains, land uses, food choices, and travel habits all have a role to play in painting a broad-brush picture for the climate impacts—and benefits—happening in cities and towns.

That’s where the Philipstown inventory is particularly innovative. It gathered data on consumption patterns from a survey of over 200 residents to estimate consumption emissions, while other consumption-based inventories have relied on downscaling national data sources. 

ICLEI USA developed the survey with a task force of local residents to include questions that addressed vehicle emissions, landscaping, food consumption, goods consumption, and more to calculate the role local choice plays in climate action. The household survey also collected data not used in calculating emissions, but that are helpful in understanding local consumption patterns.

For example, Foodtown is the only local supermarket chain in the Town of Philipstown. Survey responses indicated that it was where the majority of residents purchased their food. So ICLEI recommended that Philipstown work with Foodtown ownership to highlight locally sourced food options, starting with a “Made in the Hudson Valley” aisle. This would bring food production and consumption closer to the final consumer and drive down consumption-based emissions.

Using survey results and other national data, ICLEI then developed a consumption-based inventory.

Household Consumption

Because a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions for many communities come from goods and services that are consumed—rather than from direct activity in the community itself—the circular economy plays an important role for communities striving to reach climate-neutrality, as well as acknowledge their place in global supply chains.

The Town of Philipstown’s total emissions for the consumption-based inventory were calculated at 198,703 metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent (MTC02e). This represents an 83% increase over the production-based contributions. Moreover, the top five emission categories in the consumption-based inventory are responsible for nearly 90% of the Town of Philipstown’s community-wide emissions.

New ClearPath Calculators Quantify Food Choices

The leading source of emissions result from residents purchase and consumption of services (led by health services, which account for 10% of national GHG emissions), food (driven by beef consumption and a globalized food chain), home heating (due to use of fossil fuel powered heating and cooling), on-road transportation (due to use of fossil fuel powered vehicles) and goods (driven by a globalized, disposable production system). 

In 2020, ICLEI added new food calculators to ClearPath so cities have the data they need to better inform their consumption-based inventories. These new calculators—including for low-carbon diets, curbside compost, and more —allow local governments to estimate emissions associated with resident food consumption. ICLEI used these calculators and others to develop Philipstown’s consumption-based inventory.

Making an Ally of Nature in the Circular Economy

But focusing solely on emissions sources without also taking into account the carbon sequestration and storage services of local natural resources is like attempting to balance a home budget from expenditures without considering revenues. The recent update to ICLEI’s U.S. Community Protocol for Accounting and Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Appendix J), allows communities to integrate the carbon flows associated with forests and urban trees.

A Philipstown resident takes core samples to measure the carbon content sequestered in the river-front wetlands. The results showed that wetlands, although a small percentage of total land uses in the Town, provide an outsized role in sequestering carbon.
A Philipstown resident takes core samples to measure the carbon content sequestered in the river-front wetlands. The results showed that wetlands, although a small percentage of total land uses in the Town, provide an outsized role in sequestering carbon.

Philipstown residents are surrounded by natural resources — forests, wetlands, fields, and farms — that work to sequester and store carbon from the atmosphere. The partners involved in this inventory worked with local scientists to quantify carbon-sequestration rates and concluded that Philipstown’s natural resources annually remove about 80,000 MTC02e each year — equivalent to roughly 40% of annual community-wide emissions. Moreover, although wetlands comprise only 5% of Philipstown’s land use, they store an amount of carbon that is equivalent to nearly 20 years of the Town’s annual community-wide emissions.

“By estimating the emissions impacts of our consumption choices and work of natural resources to remove carbon from the air, it demonstrates that supporting local economies and employing people to take care of nature is the future of fighting climate change at the local level,” said Jason Angell, Executive Director of the Ecological Citizen’s Project.