Forests have fueled economies and furnished societies with building materials, food and energy for millennia. Now, as the world seeks low-carbon solutions for a recovery from the pandemic crisis, forests are once again at the forefront in supporting economic growth – this time more sustainably.
Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and managing director of CIFOR-World Agroforestry (ICRAF) — alongside leading investors and representatives from science and industry — met this week with Britain’s heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles to accelerate the transition to a circular bioeconomy, a carbon-neutral, renewable and inclusive economy that prospers in harmony with nature. Forests are the key to that transition, creating a better future for people and the planet.
“Forests and trees are our most precious green infrastructure,” said Nasi, who attended the online discussion from Bogor, Indonesia. “We need a new economic model that properly values forests and stimulates investment in landscapes and sustainable growth. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how vulnerable we are as people and a planet to health, environmental and other crises and how we desperately need to build resilience.”
The circular bioeconomy, which emphasizes the production of renewable biological resources from trees and plants and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value-added products, is gaining momentum as a way to improve livelihoods and wellbeing. His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and business leaders at the discussion promoted a growing role for forests and agroforestry to help curb runaway greenhouse gas emissions and waste with an action plan for a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
The action plan will serve as the guiding document for a new Circular Bioeconomy Alliance, to be established by Charles under his Sustainable Markets Initiative. The European Forest Institute (EFI) and CIFOR, which includes in its portfolio a wide range of research into tropical forests and livelihoods, will play a key role in the newly established alliance by facilitating the provision of knowledge-informed support, as well as providing a networking platform to connect the dots between investors, companies, governmental and non-governmental organizations to advance the circular bioeconomy globally.
Details of the latest scientific insights and breakthrough technologies are described in a new 10-Point Action Plan to catalyze a circular bioeconomy of wellbeing. The Sustainable Markets Initiative is Charles’s effort to accelerate decarbonization, and its members include chief executive officers from companies such as HSBC Holdings, Bank of America and AstraZeneca.
Already, many industries are looking for ways to replace non-renewable metals and fossil fuels with biological inputs. The construction industry is exploring new technology that allows the use of wood instead of concrete in multistory buildings, while agricultural waste can be converted into biofuels.
CIFOR, is researching the impacts of bioenergy, especially social, economic and environmental aspects, and how it can be integrated into landscape restoration goals, as part of its efforts on advancing the potential for implementation of a circular bioeconomy, which can also help achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
A synthesis by CIFOR and EFI dips into details of the relative benefits of a bioeconomy, demonstrating that the construction sector, dominated by carbon intense, non-renewable concrete and steel, could become more sustainable through the use of wood. It shows that substituting non-wood products with wood has the potential to achieve average emissions reductions of 1.3 to 1.6 times, Nasi said.
Researchers are weighing the relative pros and cons to determine what proportion of biomass better serves sustainability by being left in the forest and contributing to local ecosystem services, which could help with economic transformation.
Forests, sustainable forest management and forest-based solutions can be the impetus for transformation, advancing the bioeconomy, while enhancing biodiversity and supporting the creation of wealth.
Such materials as concrete, steel, plastics and synthetic textiles must be replaced by fossil free and renewable materials. In this context, wood, the most versatile renewable material on earth, will be central. Sustainable wood-based solutions are fundamental.
While the top goal for a sustainable future and climate change mitigation is to reduce consumption and emissions, it is also crucial to begin using wood more efficiently for purposes in which wood has a comparative advantage from sustainability and circular economy perspectives.
CIFOR-ICRAF is working with EFI on efforts to coordinate forest-related polices that could help meet targets detailed in the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change and the SDGs. The directors of the three organizations published an open letter to heads of state urging they convene an Earth Forest Summit.
Forest and landscape degradation costs the world $6 trillion annually in lost services, goods and livelihoods, according to some estimates. Investing in forest restoration would provide jobs as well as carbon sequestration, food and renewable inputs for industry and energy. In addition, restoring forests protects biodiversity and in doing so, protects the world’s stock of potential medicines, goods and services.
“The Action Plan is our response to HRH The Prince of Wales’ call to invest in nature as the true engine for our economy,” said European Forest Institute Director Marc Palahí, who moderated the roundtable. “We brought together over 25 authors from across scientific disciplines to consider what global, holistic and transformative action we can take to put the world on a sustainable path.”
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