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International cooperation for a better circular economy: Win-win narratives stand in the way of effective progress

Discourse analysis on circular economy cooperation between China and the EU

Freiburg, Nov 08, 2021

The success of a global circular economy is critically dependent on effective cooperation between influential countries. A joint Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on circular economy, signed by China and the EU in 2018, attracted high hopes – and corresponding optimistic narratives. A research team led by Anran Luo from the Chair of Social Transformation and Circular Economy at the Institute of Environmental Social Sciences and Geography at the University of Freiburg and Prof. Dr. Sina Leipold, who now researches and teaches as Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Jena. Their key finding was that the predominantly optimistic and depoliticized narratives suggesting a win-win situation for all inhibit communication on key areas of tension, such as development gaps, and close off channels for joint discussions on scales of implementation. Skeptical narratives, on the other hand, often limit themselves to highlighting problem areas, but rarely offer alternatives. For their study, the researchers conducted 72 interviews with stakeholders and examined 40 official documents as well as participant observation reports. They published their findings in the journal Global Environmental Change.

“Some stakeholders see the Memorandum of Understanding as a milestone in global efforts to address pressing environmental issues in extraction, resource use and waste management. We believe this expectation is premature,” Luo says, summarizing the research. “Our discursive analysis of China-EU cooperation shows why, despite good intentions and consensus on goals, cooperation has so far failed to move from rhetorical agreement to practical implementation.”

According to the researchers, two camps are emerging in the discourse on a transnational circular economy: the optimists and the skeptics. The prevailing narrative of the optimists is that a shared circular economy as a concept of trade cooperation is a win-win situation for all parties. Optimists hope to stimulate mutually beneficial for trade between China and the EU, thereby addressing economic and environmental problems in both regions. In addition, China and the EU could fight for the goal of sustainable development worldwide, jointly address trade and technical challenges, exchange green technologies, and unify regulations in the circular economy-related industries, such as recycling. However, these narratives ignore critical differences and areas of tension between the two actors – such as the uneven development of the states and other differences, for example history, culture, political system, governing style, and socio-ecological conditions.

Skeptics, on the other hand, emphasize precisely these differences and tensions – and that they would, in principle, hinder a common circular economy. Moreover, competitive tensions over resources, global economic status, and technologies would intensify. This competitive mentality would have to transition to trust and information sharing before a shared circular economy with a cooperative mindset would be possible. However, these narratives mostly leave the question of how this could happen unanswered.

According to the study, the optimistic narratives dominate. However, these narratives – by ignoring critical aspects – would impede progress toward effective circular economy cooperation. Diplomatic tensions could be reduced in this way, but at the same time no critical, yet constructive dialogue could be established, for example on differences in development, negative competition, mistrust or geopolitical rivalry. However, this is necessary in order to change socio-political actions in the sense of a circular economy.

“Ignoring the differences between China and the EU fuels feelings of mistrust, which threatens any cooperation. Political debate about market-focused cooperation through free trade inevitably leads to value-laden discussions about equality and justice,” Luo explains. “This depoliticization disrupts communication channels for negotiating the nature of a shared circular economy. Maintaining optimistic narratives constructs common interests but is unable to resolve underlying political tensions.” Skeptical narratives would not be able to do that either, as they currently highlight critical issues but offer few solutions. Luo: “We recommend using new narrative strategies to open up negotiation and contestation channels for environmental cooperation.”

The researchers evaluated statements from key Chinese and European stakeholders from politics, industry, research and NGOs, such as the EU delegation in China, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the China Association of Circular Economy (CACE), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Economic Forum (WEF).


Original publication:
Luo, A., Zuberi, M., Liu, J., Perrone, M., Schnepf, S., Leipold, S. (2021): Why common interests and collective action are not enough for environmental cooperation – Lessons from the China-EU cooperation discourse on circular economy. In: Global Environmental Change.


Anran Luo
Chair of Societal Transition and Circular Economy
Institute of Environmental Social Sciences and Geography
University of Freiburg
Tel.: 0761/203-67919

Bastian Strauch
Office of University and Science Communications
University of Freiburg
Tel.: 0761/203- 4301