New governance for the circular economy

New governance for the circular economy

Guido Braam leads the ‘Netherlands as a circular hotspot’ initiative, a programme to promote the Netherlands internationally as a circular economy pioneer[1]. The programme is organised by the Circle Economy cooperative, with support from the Dutch government. Braam is also a member of the committee that prepared Circular Economy: From Wish to Practice, a report published by the Dutch advisory Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (Rli) and presented in June 2015 to the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs and Minister for the Environment. One of the main issues raised by the report is more effective governance to coordinate circular economy initiatives in the Netherlands.

The Rli report argues that a broad agenda across different government ministries in the Netherlands is required to create more coherence among circular economy initiatives. Why is this needed?

Guido Braam: There are a number of different circular economy initiatives going on at the moment, at different levels: city, regional and national. However, each region in the Netherlands has different strengths.  Amsterdam, for example, has a big focus on design, while in the south of the Netherlands you have Limburg where there are a lot of cradle-to-cradle initiatives, while in the north in Friesland there are symbiosis-type activities between farmers and activities such as water treatment. Each area has its own priorities. In terms of governance however, the connections between initiatives and levels – regional, national – are too limited; there is not enough connection between relevant policies and different levels.

A circular economy demands a sort of holistic approach, involving economic growth, jobs, environment and so on. The ministries that look after these areas are currently organised in silos but we need to find a way to make collaboration work throughout all the ministries. There are some clear signals at national level, and one or two ministries are working together on topics, but there’s a lack of a common agenda and of governance to ensure that all these ministries work together in a more mature way.

To give an example, I’m working on a project within the dairy industry. We want to extract phosphorous and ammonia from manure and sell it back on the market. However, it still has the status of waste. If you want to change this, it is not only a question of getting the ministry of infrastructure and environment to change the rules. You also need collaboration with economic affairs, and if you want to ship the waste around Europe there are still difficulties in transferring it across borders. So governments need to be adaptive and understand what a circular economy is, in order to make these changes in a coordinated way. Initiatives also have to be coordinated so they can be scaled-up.

What practical steps are needed to create this more joined-up approach? Would you be in favour of some kind of ministry for the circular economy?

Guido Braam: The circular economy should be an integral part of all policies. At the moment, every ministry has its own agenda points but they’re not aligned. So what you probably need is a new way of governance, going beyond interdepartmental collaboration, and being a little more creative, working in informal networks of people. Some ministries already have ‘local heroes’ [pioneering the circular economy] and we want to connect them.

It also helps to have a common goal. We started with the ‘Netherlands as a circular hotspot’ initiative – a common goal to which everybody can contribute. We have open innovation[2] meetings between the municipalities, regions and the Dutch government to discuss what new kind of governance is needed, but we don't have any standard solution yet.

Also, a change to a circular economy cannot just come from the government. It will have to come from society itself: business and people together will have to ask for the government to play a new role. One example is the RACE coalition [Realisation of Acceleration towards a Circular Economy[3], a collaboration in the Netherlands to promote a circular economy], in which you see equal partnerships between NGOs, business and the government. That’s an example of what is currently working.

Do you think that, if an effective governance model for the circular economy is defined in the Netherlands, it will be transferable to other countries?

Guido Braam: That is very culturally dependent. In the Netherlands, it is quite common that science, business and government can work together on an equal basis. In other countries, it depends very much on whether it’s a high-trust or low-trust society and whether it’s common that people are treated in an equal manner. In the RACE coalition, for example, the Dutch government brings in some funding, but there is an equal say between all the participants.

What is necessary now, however, is a more iterative process in policymaking. It is hard nowadays for a policymaker to come up with a policy that even lasts three or five years. A more collaborative, iterative process is needed in which participants try to create a better policy solution.

We have had a couple of years during which the policy focus was very much on the crisis and ensuring there is less unemployment. But now attention is focusing again on climate issues and the right type of economic growth, so for the Netherlands there is a window of opportunity to think about what kind of society we could become. We have the luxury of being one of the wealthiest societies in the world so we also have the obligation to discover new steps forward that might also offer solutions for other parts of the world.

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