In the last 50 years, the biosphere, upon which humanity depends, has been altered to an unparalleled degree[i]. The current economic model relying on fossil resources and addicted to “growth at all costs” is putting at risk not only life on our planet, but also the world’s economy.
The need to react to the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is a unique opportunity to transition towards a sustainable wellbeing economy centered around people and nature[ii]. After all, deforestation, biodiversity loss and landscape fragmentation have been identified as key processes enabling direct transmission of zoonotic infectious diseases[iii]. Likewise, a changing climate has profound implications for human health3.
Putting forward a new economic model requires transformative policies, purposeful innovation, access to finance, risk-taking capacity as well as new and sustainable business models and markets. But above all we need to address the past failure of our economy to value nature, because our health and wellbeing fundamentally depends on it.
A circular bioeconomy[iv] (see Figure 1) offers a conceptual framework for using renewable natural capital to holistically transform and manage our land, food, health and industrial systems with the goal of achieving sustainable wellbeing in harmony with nature.
Within the framework of the Sustainable Markets Initiative (https://www.sustainable-markets.org/), under the leadership of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, a 10-Point Action Plan to create a circular bioeconomy is proposed below. The Action Plan is a response to The Prince of Wales’ call to invest in nature as the true engine for our economy. The Action Plan, guided by new scientific insights and breakthrough technologies, is articulated around six transformative action points further discussed below and four enabling action points (described in Table 1), which mutually reinforce each other.
1. Aim at sustainable wellbeing
The current fossil-based economy measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) should be replaced by an economy aiming at sustainable wellbeing centered around people and our natural environment. This means replacing current economic indicators such as GDP, which focus only on market transactions, with new indicators of sustainable wellbeing including human health, which should include the broad range of non-market contributions from natural and social capital (e.g., Genuine Progress Indicator[i], or Sustainable Wellbeing Index3). The Sustainable Development Goals provide an internationally agreed framework to develop these new indicator approaches and integrate them in the national accounts accordingly. It is now technically possible to understand and measure the impact of developing a circular bioeconomy in terms of sustainable wellbeing while accounting for the tradeoffs and synergies between different SDGs3.
2. Invest in nature and biodiversity
Measures to protect and enhance biodiversity and our natural capital through two interdependent strategies are essential for sustainable wellbeing, human health and a resilient circular bioeconomy. The first strategy is based on massive research evidence showing how fostering more species-rich systems can support productive and resilient agriculture, forestry and aquaculture[i], while avoiding the pitfalls of climate change, land degradation, resource depletion, pollution and insect decline. The second strategy aims at protecting large, contiguous biodiverse systems across different ecoregions to prevent the deterioration of global ecosystem services, species extinction and the rapid erosion of biodiversity7. A global concerted action to maintain and restore highly biodiverse natural ecosystems over large land areas is required to save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth[ii]. Both types of measures require new business models and institutional instruments like payments for ecosystem services[iii] or common asset trusts aiming at the protection of biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services.
3. Ensure an equitable distribution of prosperity
Biological resources like agriculture or forest resources, are usually owned and managed by many more people, communities and entities, when compared to fossil resources, such as gas and oil. This offers the circular bioeconomy the possibility to generate a more equitable distribution of income, jobs, infrastructure and prosperity across a wider geography4. To do that, circular bioeconomy value chains need to be co-created with the participation of local communities. This means that the role of local populations, including indigenous people where pertinent, should not be limited to supplying traditional knowledge or harvesting biological resources, but it should include their participation in strategic decision-making, governance and benefit sharing[i]. At the same time, the empowerment of women, including microfinance for women’s enterprises, should be explicitly addressed to guarantee inclusive governance, poverty alleviation and overall sustainable development.
4. Rethink holistically land, food and health systems
Food systems are responsible for 21-37% of global greenhouse gas emissions and a major driver of deforestation and land degradation[i], yet there is still widespread food insecurity and malnutrition. Transforming the land sector (agriculture, forestry, wetlands, bioenergy) towards more sustainable practices could contribute an estimated 30% of the global mitigation needed in 2050 to deliver on the 1.5°C target [ii]. To achieve this, scaling up sustainable agriculture practices11 and climate smart forestry measures[iii] is needed to meet the demand for food while providing key regulating ecosystem services (e.g., link to climate cooling and water)[iv] and sustainable feedstocks for producing biobased products and bioenergy. A one-health2 approach is also necessary to address holistically human and animal health in connection to land use and climate change.
5. Transform industrial sector
Globally, industry is responsible for over 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which the majority arise from the production of bulk materials like cement, metals, chemicals and petrochemical products[i]. At the same time the current industrial system remains too ‘linear’ (for instance only 12% of the materials come from recycling globally), resource intense and based on non-renewable resources (non-metallic minerals such as sand or gravel account for about 50% of all resources that we extract globally)9. It is urgent to deploy scalable innovations and viable technologies to produce resource-efficient, circular and low carbon solutions based on both renewable energy and sustainability sourced bio-based materials. A good example is the first ever car made of nanocellulose, a biomaterial five times lighter and stronger than steel, produced in Japan in 2019. New biomaterials, including bioplastics, hold tremendous promise due to its lower carbon footprint and biodegradability compared to petrochemical products4. For instance, new wood-based textiles have a climate mitigation effect of 5 kg CO2 per kg of product used compared to polyester11. Finally, sustainable fuels processed from biowaste or even carbon emissions can be now used in aviation.
6. Reimagine cities through ecological lenses
UN projections foresee 2.3 billion new urban dwellers by 2050. Producing the volume of new housing required could claim up to 20% of the remaining carbon budget for 2020-2050 if mineral-based construction materials such as steel and cement are used[i]. A shift to biomaterials (based on engineering wood or bamboo) could substantially reduce both the amount of materials used and the carbon footprint of our cities while creating durable carbon pools4,15. Using wood in construction has a climate mitigation effect of 2.4-2.9 Kg CO2 per Kg of product used when compared to concrete11 while also storing 1 ton of CO2 in each m3 of products. Building with wood is also more resource efficient as it can reduce the total amount of materials used in construction by 50%15. Finally, the use of nature-based solutions such as urban forests, trees and vegetation has positive impacts on the health of urban populations while reducing the urban heat island effects[ii].
Realising the potential of the circular bioeconomy through the six transformative action points described above requires an enabling environment, as reflected in the four enabling action points below, which include mutually reinforcing policies and strategies, innovation, investments, and research and education in order to trigger the necessary transformative changes across sectors and systems. Table 1 summarizes the key recommendations under the four enabling action points in connection to the six transformative action points.
Table 1: Enabling action points for a circular bioeconomy of wellbeing
The Action Plan for a circular bioeconomy is a call for global, holistic and transformative action to put the world on a sustainable path. The path of a circular bioeconomy of wellbeing.
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