Leaders gather to discuss how a circular bioeconomy can succeed

A nature- and people-powered economy could create USD 3.5 trillion in business opportunities and 87 million jobs by 2030

A man holds a rattan rope while preparing to collect resin from a damar tree in Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR
22 March 2021
22 March 2021

The circular bioeconomy promises sustainable economic growth and jobs while supporting ecosystem restoration and climate change mitigation – but all this can only be realized if people and nature remain the economic model’s focus.

That was the consensus of policymakers, economists, academics and researchers who gathered online for the “Nature at the Heart of a Global Circular Economy” digital forum on 19 March 2021, hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partners.

“Restoring nature is essential to us achieving sustainable development; we see that our present economic models are a threat to nature and to our wellbeing,” said Sharon Ikeazor, Nigeria’s environment minister. 

The circular bioeconomy – an economy powered by nature and sustainable use of its many resources – offers a unique opportunity to use renewable natural capital to holistically transform and manage land, food, health and industrial systems. The model focuses on minimizing waste and replacing the non-renewable, fossil-based products on which most economies rely. Its impact can be particularly high in cutting the environmental impact of cities and densely populated areas.

“The majority of our people live in forest-dependent communities, and so the restoration of degraded landscapes could definitely drive economic development and create employment,” she said. And because a circular bioeconomy merges modern innovation and traditional, nature-based solutions to environmental challenges, it would also support Nigeria’s industrial and technological transformation while creating jobs and fighting poverty, Ikeazor said.

Shifting the energy and extractives system, for example, to circular and resource-efficient models could mean USD 3.5 trillion in business opportunities and 87 million jobs by 2030. “The circular bioeconomy means, above all, creating an economy where life – and not consumption – is its true engine and purpose,” said Marc Palahí, director of the European Forest Institute (EFI), which organized the event with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), World Agroforestry (ICRAF), and the Finnish innovation fund Sitra, in collaboration with the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) and the Sustainable Markets Initiative Circular Bioeconomy Alliance (SMI CBA).

A bamboo nursery in Rwanda. The bamboo plant can stabilize the soil on slopes and landslide-prone areas. Alba Saray Pérez Terán, CIFOR
A bamboo nursery in Rwanda. The bamboo plant can stabilize the soil on slopes and landslide-prone areas. Alba Saray Pérez Terán, CIFOR

Rwanda’s government is working toward creating a forest-based circular bioeconomy from the ground up, said Mujawamariya Jeanne d’Arc, the country’s environment minister.

To ensure timber production and sales generate benefits for local residents, forest management is becoming increasingly community-led, she said. Timber by-products are used to create briquettes to fuel stoves rather than sacrificing trees for fuel, and tree branches and leaves are fed to cows whose dung is then used to fertilize kitchen gardens, which are common in most Rwandan homes in Rwanda.

“It becomes a cycle, and no waste is wasted,” the minister said.

Gabon had earned mere pennies from each dollar’s worth of wood that its people harvested and exported in the past. That distorted attitudes and led to deforestation and loss of ecosystem services, said Lee White, the Gabonese minister of Water, Forest, the Sea and Environment. Part of the solution lies in convincing the people of Gabon that their wood is much more valuable and therefore worth conserving, paradoxically by creating substantive jobs in the timber industry within the country. 

“If we can create sustainable forestry industries, we can create hundreds of thousands of jobs that gives us a constituency of people who are vested in maintaining the forest,” said White, describing this as an “industrial ecosystem,” a synonym for the circular economy. “That’s how we get the Gabonese people to become the protectors of forests that we need them to be.”

Africa produced 54 percent more wood and had four times more forest area than the E.U. in 2019, noted Lauri Hetemäki, assistant director of EFI. Yet the export value of EU forest products was 17 times greater than in Africa: USD 100 billion compared with USD 6 billion. 

That demonstrates how Africa has huge potential to derive more value from its forests without producing more wood, while advancing environmental, economic and social sustainability, said Hetemäki. But to realize this, Africa must develop its circular forest bioeconomy and supportive polices.

Training held in Cameroon for producing charcoal from sawmill waste. Joel Kouam, CIFOR
Training held in Cameroon for producing charcoal from sawmill waste. Joel Kouam, CIFOR

Forests are generally central to circular bioeconomies because forests are the main source of non-food, non-feed renewable biological resources. Wood is the most versatile renewable material on Earth and is fundamental to making the circular bioeconomy work.

The bioeconomy is actually the world’s original economy to which we are now returning, said Mari Pantsar, director of sustainability solutions at Sitra. “We really need systemic change to solve the sustainability crisis, with climate change, nature loss and pollution,” said Pantsar. “A holistic approach will not only tackle these; it can also tackle social challenges.”

Keeping people and their communities at the heart of a bioeconomy is critical to its success, said Christopher Martius, managing director of CIFOR Germany. “Otherwise, it will not move forward in countries that are stricken by poverty and missing policies.”

Bringing together community members will help in developing inclusive national strategies to find innovative protection for the vast Amazon forests that help us to mitigate and adapt to climate change, said Brazil’s Izabella Mônica Vieira Teixeira, co-chair of the International Resource Panel, a knowledge-sharing platform launched by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2007.

The global crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a rising interest in sustainable investment, means the world must quickly “seize this window of opportunity,” for change, said Prince Charles, Britain’s heir-to-the-throne and a long-time advocate for the environment. He leads the Sustainable Markets Initiative, with the goal of supporting an informed transition to a climate-neutral, inclusive circular bioeconomy through a multi-stakeholder approach.

“The time for talking is past,” Charles said in a video message. “We must invest in nature as the true engine for a new economy – a circular bioeconomy that gives back to nature as much as we take from her in order to restore urgently the balance we have so rashly disrupted.”

In community-managed forests, the local community plays a major role in forest management and land-use decision-making. Ricky Martin, CIFOR
In community-managed forests, the local community plays a major role in forest management and land-use decision-making. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

“We need solutions on steroids,” added Akanksha Khatri, who leads the nature action agenda of the World Economic Forum’s Platform for Global Public Goods. Solutions in the Global South should focus as much on boosting the effectiveness of institutions as on market mechanisms, she said. That means close collaborations with local governments, community-based organizations and better program transparency. 

A comment by Prince Charles was emphasized by several panellists: “It’s not a lack of capital that is holding us back, but rather, the way in which we deploy it.” Added to that, a lack of investor knowledge concerning the circular bioeconomy model is a significant hurdle, said Jennifer Pryce, the president and CEO of impact investing firm Calvert Impact Capital. 

“Investors talk about the components of the circular bioeconomy – energy, forestry, waste regeneration. But the bigger strategy of a circular bioeconomy isn’t yet in their lexicon,” she said. Investors want to see examples of how the bioeconomy works and its outcomes, “to show that it does something meaningful, in practice.” 

This digital summit has demonstrated the potential of a circular bioeconomy to create new, sustainable industries and livelihoods. All that is missing now is concerted action, said Robert Nasi, the director general of CIFOR and managing director of CIFOR-ICRAF.

“We can do it, we know how to do it, so now – let’s do it.”


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