Author: Bo Hoogerwerf, Chantal Blom, Roel Delahaye
Circular economy and the Sustainable Development Goals


Statistics Netherlands (CBS) has published the yearly Monitor of Well-being & Sustainable Development Goals (MBW) since 2018. The purpose of the MBW is to help policymakers and the public to understand how various aspects of well-being in the Netherlands are changing and the impact this can have, and to measure the progress of the Netherlands with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The publication, funded by the ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, is a basic underlying document for the accountability debate in the Dutch House of Representatives every May. 

The SDGs – which constitute an important part of the MBW – comprise sustainability indicators covering various policy areas. The Netherlands is one of the 193 member states of the United Nations that agreed to achieve the SDGs by 2030. As a consequence, the SDGs are playing an increasingly important role in Dutch government policy.  

In recent years, the spotlight has increasingly been turned to the connection between the various policy areas touching on sustainability. SDG policy areas largely interweave with each other, both in terms of synergy and trade-offs (CBS, 2021a): policy fields can have both positive and negative effects on each other. One eye- catching synergy, for example, is the relationship between the aim for a circular economy (CE) and the realization of the climate goals: in a CE, resources are used where they have  the highest possible value for the economy, the intention being to reduce their impact on the environment and their effect on the climate. CE is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal to realize sustainability goals such as climate neutrality. The Dutch Coalition agreement 2021-2025 of the Rutte IV cabinet contains the following passage: (….) “An ambitious climate goal and implementation programme will be announced for the circular economy. The government will seek to set a good example in this respect. We will ensure that climate policy is better aligned with circularity.” Other SDG policy fields that seem obvious in the light of CE are SDG 8 ‘Decent work and economic growth’, SDG 11 ‘Sustainable cities and communities’ and SDG 12 ‘Responsible consumption and production’. 

Based on a paper by Schroeder et al. (2018) identifying which 21 SDG targets contribute directly to CE, this report looks further than the SDGs that have an obvious link with CE. It is the first study to perform a systematic and qualitative analysis of the relationship between CE and the SDGs and how they affect each other.  

Starting out from the above-mentioned 21 SDG targets, the report first takes the SDG perspective, examining the influence of the CE transition on the selected SDGs. Subsequently we switch to the CE perspective, to see whether it is possible to derive CE progress in the Netherlands from the SDG targets. Where possible, we recommend supplementary indicators to monitor both the CE and the SDGs. For some SDG targets, not only synergies are identified, but also trade-offs. 

The results show that a transition to a CE does affect the SDG targets. CE means that can often be linked to SDG indicators are recycling, efficient resource use and substitution. The CE goal to reduce impact on the environment through the whole production chain is also reflected in the SDG targets measured through footprint indicators. Looking at this the other way around, it also proved possible to derive developments along four CE themes from the SDGs: resource use, waste, supply chain security and economic benefits. The Dutch government CE programme pays little attention to some SDGs, for example those concerned with water, health and poverty. Although CE certainly affects these themes, it is still unclear whether they are explicitly part of the CE goals. Some SDG indicators, for example the one for efficient water use, could also be used to monitor CE.

The results reveal not only the synergies between CE and the SDGs, but also the trade-offs. These trade-offs can occur in the pursuit of one single goal, for example SDG 7 ‘Affordable and clean energy’. Renewable energy generation prescribed by the SDGs can conflict with the dependency on critical materials used for wind turbines and solar panels from the viewpoint of CE. Both the synergies and the trade-offs will have to be taken into account in decision-making to achieve the overarching sustainability goal. 

The report contains a number of recommendations based on the results. First of all: examine the SDGs that Schroeder et al. (2018) identify as not having a direct link with CE. The greenhouse gas footprint, for example, is an important CE indicator that is not included if only the SDGs with direct links with CE are examined. 

A second recommendation is to conduct a quantitative analysis of the synergies and trade-offs between CE and all the SDGs. This may reveal interesting and relevant insights, which can be used to establish whether the relationships identified in this report are reflected in the underlying indicator data. 

Thirdly, develop supplementary indicators, for example the volume of secondary raw materials used compared with primary raw materials. This could fill gaps in the measurement of both the SDGs and CE. 

The last recommendation is to establish a link between policy plans concerning CE and the indicators identified in this report. This will give a better insight into how the Netherlands is doing in terms of achieving relevant policy targets.