13/11/20

Opportunity and risk in the nature-based bioeconomy

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Farmers tending their plants. But Chatham House’s Patrick Schröder warns that green isn’t always sustainable. Copyright: USAID/Natasha Murigu/(CC BY-NC 2.0)

Speed read

  • ‘Green’ doesn’t always mean ‘sustainable’, says circular economy specialist
  • Bioeconomy an essential part of the global economy
  • But, has potential to further degrade the environment

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Green isn’t always sustainable, Chatham House’s Patrick Schröder warns as the Global Bioeconomy Summit kicks off.
 
All that glitters is not gold, or so the expression goes. Similarly, as business leaders, academics, and policymakers gather for the third Global Bioeconomy Summit it's worth noting that all that's green is not necessarily sustainable.
 
The ‘bioeconomy’ is a sophisticated sounding term, but essentially it means the things we make, use and sell that have their origins in nature; and the aim is to transition the economy from fossil resources towards renewable ones. Farming and forestry are part of the bioeconomy, as is energy produced from biomass, and services like tourism that are rooted in nature and outdoor experiences. The bioeconomy is central to what we do every day, and is an essential part of the global economy. In Europe alone the bioeconomy has an annual value of €2.4 trillion. It holds the key to a greener, more sustainable and healthy future for all — if the right practices, regulations and incentives are in place.

“Governments have the choice to use the bioeconomy as a source of regenerative and sustainable development that upholds the rights of citizens and protects crucial ecological systems.”

Patrick Schröder

At the same time, the bioeconomy has the potential to drive further environmental destruction and degradation. Irresponsible pursuit of profit and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources are making climate change, biodiversity loss, infectious diseases, hunger and inequality much worse. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that unless we dramatically reduce our impact on the natural world, future pandemics will become more frequent, spread more quickly and kill more people. 
 
High levels of consumption in industrialised countries have far-reaching impacts on ecosystems, food security and human rights both within and beyond their borders. Low- and middle-income countries are directly affected by the policies and practices of the global North, and ordinary citizens have limited influence. Demand in the United States and the United Kingdom for beef directly drives deforestation in the Amazon; while the number of everyday products that contain unsustainable palm oil continues to increase.
 

Sustainability challenge

 
An unsustainable bioeconomy also threatens the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — a global sustainability framework adopted by the United Nations in 2015. A recent report by the German Federal Environment Agency found that in order for the bioeconomy to work for, rather than against, the SDGs, the global agenda and national strategies need to focus much more on restoration of ecosystems, sustainable land-use, climate protection and food sovereignty.
 
Forests are a key testing ground. These ecosystems have a huge and positive impact on biodiversity, conservation and climate, and provide livelihoods and a place to live for millions of people. But they face an existential threat from unsustainable economic activity. For example, large-scale bioenergy production in Latin America and the Caribbean, where forests cover almost half of all land area, is competing for space with farming of monoculture crops for export, with serious consequences for biodiversity and food security of smallholders.
 
We’ll hear lots about the potential of the bioeconomy for delivering sustainable economic growth during this week’s summit, but we should be sceptical about the sustainability credentials of a system with a track record of pushing marginalised communities and vulnerable ecosystems to the limit. Without better governance and institutional frameworks, the bioeconomy will only exacerbate social and environmental problems.
 

Three steps

 
At Chatham House, we’ve been looking into how to make the bioeconomy more sustainable. Our research suggests that there are three things that will drive better outcomes.
 
First, we need to bring in new voices. Currently, bioeconomy policy processes are dominated by industry, science and a small circle of political actors. There’s an unequal agenda here: those most affected by the policies are rarely the ones shaping them. Greater efforts to include civil society and a wider range of government departments in decision making will encourage the bioeconomy to work for a larger group of people.
 
Second, governments need to use the right governance mechanisms. So far, only a small number of countries with national bioeconomy strategies consider the potential negative impacts and environmental risks. The development of the bioeconomy needs to align with existing international governance and support mechanisms for sustainable land-use, soil protection and forest conservation. The UN Biodiversity Conference, due to take place in China next year, will be important for establishing cohesive governance mechanisms and regulations to prevent trade-offs between the bioeconomy and biodiversity protection.

Third, the bioeconomy should embrace circular principles. Much of the bioeconomy is based on our current linear model of ‘take–make–throw away’, where resources are extracted, turned into products, consumed and discarded. This is fundamentally unsustainable. In a circular bioeconomy the cascading use principle is applied to biomass resources, such as wood and agricultural products. This approach gives priority to processes that allow the reuse and recycling of products and raw materials. It increases the productivity and efficient use of scarce and valuable raw material resources.
 
Governments have the choice to use the bioeconomy as a source of regenerative and sustainable development that upholds the rights of citizens and protects crucial ecological systems. Or, they can allow the evolution of a system that is just as exploitative, unsustainable and profit-driven as other parts of the economy.
 
Delegates at this week’s summit should think hard about the actions they can take to ensure the growing bioeconomy fulfils its promise to serve the needs of people and planet, and help deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.
 
Patrick Schröder is a senior research fellow in Chatham House's energy, environment and resources programme. He specialises in the circular economy and resource governance in developing countries.

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