A tree-powered circular bioeconomy

Seeking solutions that bring together diverse stakeholders
Woman chisels a design into wood
A woman carves a design into wood in Jepara, Indonesia. CIFOR/Deanna Ramsay

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Jeff Bezos is hoping his immense wealth can change more than the retail landscape.

With a promise to donate $10 billion to select environmental organizations as part of his Earth Fund, the Amazon Inc. founder and the world’s wealthiest person is also the world’s biggest climate activism donor. The fund aims to help steer the planet away from life-threatening climate change and biodiversity loss.

While the fund will help reverse environmental damage around the world, some activists believe it does not go far enough. Amazon could do more as a company to create a more sustainable future and address unequal funding for grassroots climate solutions, according to the Climate Justice Alliance. Over the past two years, Amazon employees have also criticized the company for not doing enough to reduce e-commerce packaging waste, pay fair wages and reduce emissions.

That’s where circular bioeconomy comes in. The idea is that as companies like Amazon build more sustainable and equitable supply chains, they will pollute less and waste fewer materials, eliminating much of the strain that is currently placed on ecosystems through destructive land management practices and over-reliance on non-renewable resources.

Forests have a key role to play in this transition, as they supply everything from climate protection to natural resources such as food, fuel, building materials and packaging. If managed properly, forests also support livelihoods, jobs and social harmony by including women, indigenous groups and others in sustainable economic activities.

“If we’re going to make a transition to a different development model, one that is based on the sustainable use of renewable resources from building materials to energy, trees and forests are absolutely essential,” said CIFOR-ICRAF Managing Director Robert Nasi.

Indeed, forest ecosystem services are not small change; they add an estimated economic value of $16.1 trillion a year to the planet, according to a 2017 study. That’s the equivalent of 11 percent of the Global GDP.  The value of ecosystem services could either decline by $4.3 trillion or increase by $32 trillion by 2050, depending on the choices made regarding global land use and management strategies, demonstrating how closely knit human activity is with the health and value of the planet, the study states.

“But it’s simply not enough to count up the number of metric tons of wood we need to reduce millions of tons of carbon emissions,” Nasi added. “We must manage forests and landscapes properly. This requires addressing their role in biodiversity protection, providing livelihoods and balanced diets. We need a holistic approach to the bioeconomy.”

Today, there is an increasing awareness of the delicate balance between human development and forest conservation. Such climate activists as Greta Thunberg have called on world leaders and the private sector to act on global pledges like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to halt climate change and reverse biodiversity loss.

In addition to Bezos, business leaders including Salesforce Chief Executive Marc Benioff are also joining with governments in initiatives such as the 1 trillion tree planting campaign, which channel funding toward sustainable planning.

These actors and others, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasingly support the transition towards a more sustainable model that will keep temperatures from increasing above 1.5 degrees Celsius in comparison to averages in pre-industrial times, beyond which projections indicate the planet will suffer significantly more from extreme weather events, ecosystem degradation, famine and droughts.

In spite of these developments, scientists at Conservation International (CI) have observed widespread rollbacks on environmental protections in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these rollbacks were justified in the name of jumpstarting economies post-pandemic, according to CI social scientist, Rachel Golden-Kroner while speaking to Forests News. This trend demonstrates a prevailing false trade-off narrative that asks policymakers to choose between jobs or forests; people or koalas; farming or food insecurity.

Although some tradeoffs are inevitable, an increasing body of research suggests forests and trees can work in tandem with the economy to equitably advance human well-being and preserve nature. In fact, it is already working.

On Indonesia’s most populous island, traditional wood carvers are using sustainably harvested wood to make furniture. Although the teak forests surrounding Jepara, Central Java were deforested because of the furniture-making industry, craftsmen and women today can access sustainably managed and harvested wood, certified through the Forest License, Governance and Trade license.

Preserving traditional industries such as teak carving in Jepara — and making sure they are managed sustainably —  can also promote gender equity. In Jepara, small and medium-scale enterprises are being leveraged to provide job advancement opportunities for women who have historically been paid less for their carving work.

Another initiative involves finding ways to use planted and carefully managed forests for sustainable biomass energy. Firewood and charcoal are crucial for the survival of at least 2 billion people, and about 2.4 billion people use wood fuel for cooking, mainly in developing countries, according to a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

   These acacia trees are being planted for future charcoal production in Yanonge, DRC. Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   A man digs out the charcoal he has produced. The wood has been burned slowly underground for two weeks. Nyimba district, Zambia. Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

By planting fast-growing tree species on degraded or abandoned land, local communities can grow a long-lasting source of valuable wood fuel, states a CIFOR brief on the subject. Some tree species including tamanu also produce oil that can be converted to biodiesel and bioethanol. These strategies are especially relevant in developing countries where people do not have access to modern renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines.

An interwoven future

Communities like those in Jepara are on the front lines of the unprecedented environmental and landscape changes taking place globally. However, the sustainable forest and tree-based developments already taking place in some communities offer hope that a tree-powered circular bioeconomy is possible

The task is daunting — many primary forests are already degraded, and time-tested local practices are quickly evolving in unsustainable ways. At the same time, there is increasing awareness and action toward solutions that bring together diverse stakeholders.

Donors like Bezos could play an important role in ensuring frontline communities have the support they need to enact grassroots landscape restoration, reduce waste and produce sustainable energy. But much work remains to ensure these actors can meaningfully work together.

With careful management, forest landscapes could be an important catalyst in the transition to a resilient circular bioeconomy. And companies like Amazon may be a key part of the solution in the circular bioeconomy of the future.

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