Why circular bioeconomy now?

Download as a pdf

For the first time in human history, we face the emergence of a single, tightly coupled human socio- ecological system of planetary scope. The world and Europe are facing unprecedented interconnected challenges which will even strengthen in the coming decades: increasing demand for food, water, materials and energy while mitigating and adapting to climate change and reversing environmental degradation, including biodiversity loss, nutrient emissions and land degradation. Addressing such grand challenges, while supporting social and economic prosperity for a growing population, requires a system change in our economic model.

For 200 years we have had an industrial era built on a fossil-based, linear economy. We have seen the transformation of global societies as never before in human history. The industrial era has delivered economic and demographic growth as well as social and technological progress. Over the last 50 years the global economy has experienced a great acceleration, which has triggered significant global economic convergence and a significant reduction of both poverty and inequality between rich and poor countries. However, poverty and inequality are still an issue, even for developed countries.

The industrial era and its economic acceleration has also resulted in an unprecedented rate of environmental degradation related to economic growth. This is clearly seen when comparing GDP growth with other indicators adjusted for natural capital destruction. The world has grown out of the planet. According to the Global Footprint Network, in 2015, we already used a full 1.6-times the sustainable level of resources in our planet. In two decades it will require two planets to sustain our current economic system.

The context of global and European societies has changed. Now we need a new concept for the new context, a new economic paradigm that puts the basis for human prosperity within the planetary boundaries. The year 2016 was a turning point: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, and the Paris Agreement on climate change came into effect. These sent out a global political message on the way forward to transform our economic system to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

This requires new concepts to realize these international agreements, and bring them to action. The circular biobased economic paradigm can be this – it builds on the synergies of the circular economy and bioeconomy concepts. These two concepts have so far been developed in parallel, but now need to be connected to reinforce each other.

On 13 February 2012, the European Commission adopted a strategy for “Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe”. Many European and world countries have developed their own bioeconomy strategies in recent years. In 2017, the EU started to review the existing Bioeconomy Strategy to reflect on its future development. We believe the circular bioeconomy has great potential to catalyse an inclusive European economic, political and societal project that is urgently needed. A project in which economic prosperity is more equally distributed among citizens and placed sustainably within the renewable boundaries of the planet.

The shift to a circular biobased economic paradigm should be a long-term strategy for decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation. It needs to be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. The story of the first-generation biofuels in the beginning of this century is a lesson from which we should all learn. Science and technology are laying the foundations for the bioeconomy age. Biobased products have emerged that can substitute fossil-based materials like plastics, chemicals, synthetic textiles, cement and many other materials. Now the big question is how do we take this scientific and technological success to a scale of economic paradigm shift. How can we ensure that longstanding industries such as the textile, petrochemical, construction and plastic sectors join and even lead this paradigm shift in a sustainable way?

We welcome the new report coordinated by the European Forest Institute (EFI). It reflects on the main needs to update existing bioeconomy strategies, connecting to the UN SDGs, the Paris Agreement and other recent developments including the circular economy. It provides strategic recommendations which should be considered when developing a new bioeconomy strategy for Europe, based on sustainability principles. It also provides science-based insights on the potential of forest resources, our main biological infrastructure, and on how forest-based solutions can help to develop the bioeconomy from niche to norm.

Esko Aho, Cristina Narbona Ruiz, Göran Persson and Janez Potočnik

This is an extract of the Foreword to the following publication:

Hetemäki, L., Hanewinkel, M., Muys, B., Ollikainen, M., Palahí, M. and Trasobares, A. 2017. Leading the way to a European circular bioeconomy strategy. From Science to Policy 5. European Forest Institute.