Circular economy as an overlooked opportunity to reach Denmark's climate goals

The Danish economy consumes 24.5 tonnes of virgin materials per person per year, which is three times the estimated ‘sustainable’ consumption level of 8 tonnes per capita. This amount is also higher than the European average of 17.8 tonnes per person and the global average of 11.9 tonnes, a new study finds. 

According to the Circularity Gap Report Denmark, published by Circle Economy, the Danish economy is only 4% circular, lower than the global average of 7.2%. This means that out of all the materials consumed, only 4% make it back into the economy in the form of recycled materials. 

The low Circularity Metric is explained by Denmark’s high level of consumption, which makes it difficult to source secondary (recycled) materials at the scale and speed needed to create a circular economy—despite the country’s high recycling rates. What’s more, almost half of the materials consumed are 'locked-in' to long-lasting stock like buildings, infrastructure, machinery and vehicles and cannot be recycled for years to come. This is not a ‘bad’ thing per se—when items are built to last, less virgin materials are needed to replace them. A further third of the country’s consumption is represented by biomass, such as food crops, which can be considered carbon neutral and thus don’t impede circularity. 

The Danish economy is more circular than those of Scotland (1.3% circular) and Sweden (3.4% circular). Nonetheless, it trails behind Switzerland, measured to be 6.9% circular. 

The report pinpoints the circular economy as an overlooked opportunity to reach Denmark's sustainability goals. The country already boasts mostly-renewable electricity generation and some of the world’s most audacious climate targets. However, because 70% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stem from material handling and use, these goals could prove hard to accomplish without tackling overconsumption of resources. 

The Circularity Report Denmark introduces circular scenarios within five areas with the most impact on material use and carbon emissions—construction, lifestyle, transport, agriculture and manufacturing. Other co-benefits include bolstered biodiversity and stronger, more resilient communities as well as new opportunities in the labour market.

The construction sector was found to be the most rewarding in terms of impact. To increase circularity and curb environmental impacts from construction, Denmark could, for example, promote the use of recycled materials in new buildings, increase housing occupancy, and multifuntional buildings. Combined with other interventions, this could cut the sector’s material footprint by roughly 19%, and the carbon footprint by 12%. 

Changes in lifestyle were found to deliver the second largest impact. The report encourages Denmark’s residents to rethink their purchases of new products such as textiles and electronics and to make products live longer by embracing the ‘share, repair and reuse’ economy.

The effects of all five scenarios combined constitute a material consumption reduction of 39% and a carbon footprint reduction of 42%, which would also boost the Circularity Metric from 4% to 7.6%.

About the report

The Circularity Gap Report Denmark was produced by Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based impact organisation and commissioned by a consortium of Danish institutions, including Danish Industry Foundation, Danish Society of Engineers, Confederation of Danish Industry, Danish Technological Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Danish Design Centre, and Lifestyle & Design Cluster. The full report can be accessed via this link: