The bioeconomy – bringing life to the center of our economy

by Marc Palahí, Director, European Forest Institute

This article appears in REVOLVE #35
Opinion 18 March 2020

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The industrial era and the fossil-based economy which have dominated the last 200 years of our history are coming to an end. Our economic system – powered by the massive use of fossil-based resources – has made possible the greatest and fastest economic, social and technological progress in human history. However, it has also resulted in an unprecedented environmental crisis, which is putting at risk life on our planet, and the economy that sustains our world.

The climate crisis and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same coin: the crisis of our fossil-based economic system

The way forward is clear: we need a new economic system that functions within the renewable boundaries of our planet. How to transition towards it is the tricky part: it requires the greatest economic change in human history. It means decarbonizing our economy in three decades while enhancing our natural carbon sinks and biodiversity. All this while making sure that we have a socially fair and inclusive transition.

To do this well, we will need transformative and holistic policies, massive investments and innovations at many different levels to rethink business models, markets as well as consumption and production cycles. But above all, we need to address the past failure of our economy to value nature, because nature and life (bio) need to become the prosperity engine of the new economic system. The good news is that the advance of technology in the biological, physical and digital worlds as well as new concepts like the circular economy and the bioeconomy makes this transition possible, while offering the greatest business opportunity of the 21st century.

The bioeconomy as a catalyst

Moving to a carbon-neutral economy requires fossil-free energy and a shift to fossil-free and renewable materials to decarbonize important industrial sectors like construction, transport, clothing, chemicals and packaging. To do this sustainable shift, the only renewable alternative that we have is to transform biological resources, which are carbon neutral by nature, into a new range of bio-based solutions to replace materials like plastics, concrete and steel. This is what the bioeconomy – using advanced technologies – can do.

However, biological resources, even if they are renewable, are not unlimited: this is where the circular economy concept comes in. A circular economy approach is crucial to rethink business models and design products and services in new ways to decouple the prosperity of industrial businesses from the mere consumption of products. It is also about making products that can be easily reused and recycled, minimizing waste and maximizing their value along their life cycle.

One of the most important societal challenges of this century is to address inequalities and to ensure inclusive territorial prosperity, including jobs and infrastructures in rural and “depressed” areas. The way biological resources are owned and distributed and even the difficulties related to their mobilization, transport and processing offer potential opportunities. Look for example at forest resources in Europe: they occupy more than 40% of the land and are owned by about 16 million forest owners. Already, the forest-based sector includes around 400,000 companies, mostly small enterprises, and provides more than 3 million jobs. This is a very valuable socio-ecological infrastructure that needs to be acknowledged and nurtured. It is true that mobilizing, transporting and processing fossil resources like oil is much easier than producing, managing (for 100 years), transporting and processing wood. But this difficulty is at the same time its strength in order to redistribute wealth, jobs and infrastructures, and ensure that we have human capital ready to take care of our natural capital.

Forests in Europe occupy more than 40% of the land and are owned by about 16 million forest owners. The forest-based sector includes around 400,000 companies and provides more than 3 million jobs.

The bioeconomy’s most transformative characteristic should be the recognition and value of this natural capital – with biodiversity as its cornerstone. Biodiversity is a precondition for a bioeconomy, because it determines the adaption and resilience of biological resources to a changing environment. A bioeconomy needs advanced technology and innovation to succeed but it is ultimately powered by nature and biodiversity. Thus, the bioeconomy, a regenerative economy, is about bringing life to the center of gravity of the economy and human prosperity.

“Our deepest hope as humans lies in technology; but our deepest trust lies in nature”, said economist Brian Arthur. The collision of technology and nature very much defined the 20th century. Their integration will define the 21st century – the century of biology.


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