By Marc Palahí (Director, European Forest Institute) and Xavier Marcet (President, Leadtochange)
This summer, climate-induced risks like wildfires, heat waves and new record temperatures are causing heartbreaking loss of lives, as well as destroying forests and property.
Since June, more than 100 wildfires have raged across the Arctic. In Russia alone, wildfires have been burning in 11 of the country’s regions across the Russian Arctic, with 3.2 million hectares in Siberia affected, an area bigger than Belgium. In Europe too, Spain and Portugal have again faced important fire events, and for countries like Germany forest fires are becoming the new normal. New heat records have been set in several European countries and cities, the extraordinary temperatures threatening public health.
It is clear that we have reached a tipping point. This is a manmade climate crisis, caused by a broader structural problem that we have to solve without delay. The fossil-based economy, founded on the massive consumption of fossil energy and non-renewable materials, is an unsustainable economy that has become too big for our planet. We have crossed the earth’s resilience boundaries and must now step back from the brink, before it is too late.
The new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, commits to making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Her priorities include €1trn of sustainable finance investment and turning part of the European Investment Bank into Europe’s climate bank, as well as a new circular economy action plan. At the same time, governments in several countries are raising climate change to the highest priority. The new Danish government pledged to reduce emissions by 70% below 1990 levels, while the new Finnish Government, holding the current EU Presidency, aims to lay the foundations for a Finnish carbon-neutral economy by the year 2035. In Spain too, the current Prime Minister has proposed that the first axis of his future government programme would be the ecological transition of the economy.
To bring these political ambitions to action we need new concepts which rethink our global economy and which offer a realistic and sustainable alternative – one which gives us better tools to reduce climate risks.
The circular economy and the bioeconomy must now join forces to trigger the transformation that our economy needs. The circular economy is about maximising resource efficiency, minimising waste and designing products in new ways so that they are easily reusable and recyclable. This approach is crucial to reduce both the consumption of new products and extraction of resources that we use for energy and materials, which already amounts to more than 85 billion tonnes per year. The bioeconomy is about replacing fossil products, like plastics, or non-renewable materials, like concrete or steel, by innovative, renewable and sustainable biobased solutions which are carbon neutral in principle.
Combining the two into a circular bioeconomy offers the greatest opportunity to modernise key industrial sectors like construction, textiles, chemicals, packaging or transport while decarbonising our economy and creating new jobs in both rural and urban areas.
What does it mean in practice?
Let’s take construction as an example. It is possible to build skyscrapers made of wood using a new generation of wood engineering products like cross-laminated timber. Buildings made of wood act as de facto carbon capture technologies because using wood in construction stores carbon, unlike steel or concrete which have the opposite effect. Steel and cement production accounts for more than 10% of global carbon emissions and if the cement industry were a country, it would be third in CO2 emissions worldwide. And of course wood is easily reusable: building materials like wooden beams could go on to an additional life as a floor board or window frame.
Using wood not only reduces the carbon footprint of cities, in turn it provides potential incentives and investments for sustainable forest management and creating new forests. This has important climate benefits: as trees grow they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and recent research has shown that the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sinks are found in young, regrowth forests. In turn, new economic opportunities for wood encourage landowners to manage their forests and landscapes, reducing the potential for forest fires.
At a time when the changing climate wreaks havoc around the globe, we need to make a radical change. The 21st century needs to be the century of biology, of sustainability. A circular bioeconomy provides an urgently needed strategy to connect ecology and economy, urban and rural, and nature and technology.
More information: From Science to Policy - Leading the way to a European circular bioeconomy strategy
The European Forest Institute (EFI) is an independent international science organisation which generates, connects and shares knowledge at the interface between science and policy. EFI has 29 member countries who have ratified the Convention, and c.120 member organizations in 38 countries, working in diverse research fields.