A new economy powered by life: a circular bioeconomy

Chair of the Circular Bioeconomy Alliance Marc Palahí reflects on the opportunities offered by the circular bioeconomy

A new economy powered by life: a circular bioeconomy

The multidimensional and mutually accelerating crises that are converging today – climate, biodiversity and health – are the consequences of the same fundamental problem: our economic system. It is a system addicted to fossil resources and to growth at all costs, that has failed to value our most important capital and the basis for human health and wellbeing: Nature.

Now we have arrived at a tipping point characterized by the unparalleled alteration of our biosphere, upon which humanity depends. We need to rethink our economy if we want to rewrite our future on time.

We fundamentally need a new economy, where life – remember that bio- means life! – and not consumption becomes its true engine and purpose. A new economy that prospers in harmony with nature but at the same time is powered by nature. This is not a contradiction but a necessary condition to create a circular bioeconomy. Because above all a circular bioeconomy is about reconnecting humanity, nature and the environment as a basis for a sustainable future.

A circular bioeconomy is about restoring and sustainably managing our biological systems to produce in a synergistic way food, energy, ecosystem services and biobased solutions to decarbonize our economy while generating jobs and prosperity. Doing this also requires us to recognize and invest in biodiversity as its true engine. Biodiversity is a prerequisite for life to adapt and evolve in a changing environment – and a bioeconomy is an economy that ultimately relies on life and its diversity.

The circular bioeconomy is also an opportunity to holistically rethink our land, food and energy systems while simultaneously transforming key industrial sectors and their value chains to become circular and carbon neutral. The beauty of biological resources is that, if managed wisely and sustainably, they are renewable and circular by nature. This is why biobased solutions are key to decarbonize our economy and make it circular.

Forests are central in transitioning to a circular bioeconomy. Not only because they are our main biological infrastructure, our largest terrestrial carbon sink and main host for biodiversity, but also because they are the main source of non-food non-feed biological resources. With emerging science knowledge and new technologies these resources can be transformed into a new range of wood and non-wood based solutions that can replace and environmentally outperform fossil products in sectors like construction, textiles, chemicals, transport or packaging.

For instance we can now produce a new generation of sustainable low carbon textile fibres with a carbon footprint six times lower than polyester, without generating the problem of microplastics because they are biodegradable. We can also produce a new generation of wood engineering products to replace steel and concrete at scale – two materials whose production is responsible for more than 12% of the carbon emissions globally. Using wood in building construction not only reduces the carbon footprint of our cities compared to using concrete and steel but it can also transform cities into a carbon storage infrastructure. Every cubic metre of wood products we use in our buildings stores a ton of CO2.

Over the last few decades Europe has invested substantially in forest science, technology and innovation and industrial forest-based sector development. This explains why the European Union, which hosts 4% of the world forests, is responsible for more than 40% of the global forest products export value. In comparison, Brazil hosts 12% of the world forests but is only responsible for about 4% of the global export value. Africa as a continent harvests 54% more wood than the EU, but the export value of the products made is 17 times less than that of the EU: 6 billion dollars versus 100 billion dollars. This is because 90% of the wood harvested in Africa is used for low efficient energy. This demonstrates the great potential for transcontinental collaboration to increase the climate mitigation impact of the wood-based solutions we are generating, while also increasing the economic value and jobs attached to them. At the Circular Bioeconomy Alliance we are demonstrating on the ground how restoring landscapes, investing in biodiversity and innovation can create new value chains that economically and environmentally outperform fossil-based value chains.

Over the next two decades we need to put forward the greatest economic transformation in human history, due to the scale and speed of change required to achieve a climate-neutral, inclusive and nature positive economy. This is an unprecedented global challenge but it is also the greatest opportunity to rethink our economy and create a better world for future generations.

Forests and the forest-based circular bioeconomy are crucial to catalyse the radical change that the world needs. Unlocking their potential requires working together across disciplines and sectors to develop transformative insetting strategies rather than focusing on offsetting tactics.

Further reading

Palahí, et al. 2020. Investing in Nature as the true engine of our economy: A 10-point Action Plan for a Circular Bioeconomy of Wellbeing. Knowledge to Action 02, European Forest Institute. https://doi.org/10.36333/k2a02

Hetemäki, L., Palahí, M. and Nasi, R. 2020. Seeing the wood in the forests. Knowledge to Action 1, European Forest Institute. https://doi.org/10.36333/k2a01

Image: billionphotos.com/AdobeStock