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Q&A with European Forest Institute director Marc Palahí on the bioeconomy movementWomen transport acacia seedlings, a valuable and multiuse tree species, in the Congo. Fiston Wasanga, CIFOR  5 March 2021

Gloria Pallares

Join a half-day digital forum on the global circular bioeconomy, 19 March 2021, 12:00 – 16:15 UTChere.

For the past two centuries, the world has relied on a linear, fossil fuel–based economy in which raw materials are transformed into products, used and then thrown away. But now, the climatebiodiversity, land degradation and global health crises are calling for a fundamental transformation of production and consumption patterns. The circular bioeconomy, based on renewable materials and sustainable landscape management, is rapidly emerging as an alternative to ensure human well-being within planetary boundaries.

On 19 March, the European Forest Institute (EFI), the recently merged Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and partners will hold the first global conference on the forest-based bioeconomy with focus on the Global South. The virtual event, scheduled ahead of this year’s UN climate and biodiversity talks, will explore the benefits of using wood and other bio-based solutions as compared to fossil and non-renewable products, and explore ways to deploy the latest innovations and technologies across forest-rich countries around the world. 

Ahead of the event, Landscape News spoke with EFI director Marc Palahí on the need to transform the current economic model, the role forests can play in a zero-waste, climate-neutral future, and what it will take to transition toward a more sustainable system in the next decade.

European Forest Institute director Marc Palahí. Courtesy of Johanna Kokkola
European Forest Institute director Marc Palahí. Courtesy of Johanna Kokkola

How can forests fuel the transition toward a more sustainable economic model?

The world needs a new economic system that is powered by nature and recognizes natural capital as its most important asset. Forests that are sustainably managed have a key role to play: they are the largest source of non-food, non-feed renewable biological resources we can use to replace fossil-based materials such as plastics, steel and concrete. Some examples are wood-based textiles and construction materials. 

To what extent is it possible to use forests’ renewable resources while protecting biodiversity and the vital ecosystem services it provides?

We need to break the false dichotomy between conservation and production. With the exception of primary forests, which must remain as such, it is entirely possible to create landscapes that are both resilient and productive. We can use forest resources to transition out of fossil-based systems and then reinvest in biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, which are the very foundation of the circular bioeconomy. Take Europe: since the 1960s, there has been an increase in forest harvesting, but also in carbon storage and protected areas. 

The world’s leading forest research institutions are joining forces to deliver the first global event on forest bioeconomy. What is the objective?

Europe has spearheaded the development of the circular bioeconomy concept and created cutting-edge technologies to implement it. But to succeed, we need to bring all regions on board – especially Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, which in the coming decades could face increasing adverse climate impacts, water scarcity and food insecurity against a backdrop of rapid urbanization and population growth. The event is part of the broader effort to raise understanding of the bioeconomy, foster its global expansion and highlight the extraordinary role that forests can play in creating a new economic paradigm.

What will it take to accelerate the development of a circular bioeconomy?

It will take innovation, investments, policies and infrastructures, as well as communication and education. Innovation is about transforming new technologies into products and connecting them with markets. To make that possible, we need to redirect massive flows of investment, notably of private origin, and create an adequate policy environment. For instance, through carbon taxes and procurement mechanisms that stimulate the markets for biobased solutions. France, for example, recently passed a law mandating the use wood or other biosourced materials in new public buildings. 

What about infrastructure and communication?

We need to favor green infrastructures over gray ones and to massively replace oil refineries with alternatives that use sustainable biological resources. Communication and education also have an important role to play because society at large needs to understand, and support, the transition. As citizens and consumers, people can pressure decision-makers and brands. For instance, consumers’ concern with the microplastics shed by polyester clothes is leading producers to explore wood as an alternative material for textile production.

How confident are you the world can transition toward more sustainable economic systems over the next decade to prevent the worst impacts from climate change and biodiversity loss?

The transition is possible if we start working right now and everybody takes decisive action, from decision-makers to investors to the private sector and consumers. Otherwise, the crises we face will only get worse. The basic knowledge and the technological solutions we need to affect the necessary change do exist, but, to move forward, we need to start valuing natural capital as the foundation for a new and resilient economic system.