An interview with Marc Palahí, Director EFI: “The bioeconomy is an important concept currently missing in the Green Deal”

Marc Palahi at the European Bioeconomy Summit in Helsinki (2017)

“In my opinion the bioeconomy is an important concept currently missing in the Green Deal, and it should be connected to the circular economy concept (a main pillar of the Green Deal).” Marc Palahí, Director at EFI (European Forest Institute), talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview, he talks about pandemic and Green New Deal, forests and the role of cities and regions in the development of the EU bioeconomy.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

We are experiencing a tremendous pandemic that calls into question our economic and social model. Do you think there is awareness of this by the world political class?

I think many politicians now realise that our economic system is not working, because it is obvious that it does not work. However, I don’t know if they are aware of the root causes of the problem, which is key to fix it – the current pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger crisis. The climate, biodiversity and health crises we are facing are just different faces of the same problem: our economic system. A system addicted to fossil resources and to growth at all costs that has failed to value and incorporate our most important capital: Nature. In this context, Europe with the Green Deal is showing leadership and at least better understanding of the systemic problem we are facing.

Remember, that scientists have alerted us for years – at least a decade – that biodiversity loss, deforestation and the degradation of natural ecosystems are key factors explaining the emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases (such as Covid-19) to humans.  Scientists have warned for years too about the negative effects of climate change on human health. We can draw a strong correlation between our health and the health of our planet.

EFI contributed to the manifesto launched by Prince Charles on the circular bioeconomy of wellbeing. Can you help us understand what exactly it is and who are the players involved?

We are working closely with His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, who is very committed to the restoration of harmony between humanity, nature and the environment. The Prince of Wales has launched his Circular Bioeconomy Alliance under his Sustainable Markets Initiative, and I am coordinating the Alliance from EFI. The Alliance aims to accelerate the transformation to a global circular bioeconomy that prospers in harmony with Nature. To do that we connect investors to investable solutions within the circular bioeconomy; from land restoration efforts to rethinking our cities. The Alliance includes a diverse set of members – from scientific organizations such as CIFOR or ICRAF to private companies such as AstraZeneca or UPM, a pioneer bank in sustainable finance such as Lombard Odier and important international organizations such as IUCN, WEF or WRI. (You can find the full description here, editor’s note).

What’s your opinion on the Green New Deal?

First of all, in my opinion the EU Green Deal can become the most important political development of recent decades, because Europe urgently needs a strategy to relaunch the economy and the Deal offers an ambitious green growth strategy. However, to achieve such a great ambition I think that the Green Deal should tackle more holistically, in a more transformative way, questions which are currently addressed separately but whose root causes are interconnected. In my opinion the bioeconomy is an important concept currently missing in the Green Deal, and it should be connected to the circular economy concept (a main pillar of the Green Deal). The bioeconomy offers a conceptual framework to address holistically and in a synergistic way, questions like biodiversity loss, climate change, resource efficiency or inclusive prosperity which are currently not tackled in an integrated manner. 

It is also important to remember that moving towards a resource-efficient and carbon neutral EU does not only require moving towards fossil free energy. It also requires us to move to fossil free and renewable materials, to replace carbon intense materials like plastics, concrete, steel. The only alternatives that we have are renewable biobased solutions, through the bioeconomy. This is also an opportunity to modernize and make key industrial sectors circular and renewable – as biological resources, if managed sustainably, are circular and renewable by nature.

The future EU forest strategy will be the key reference in forest-related policy development. How to better integrate this strategy in the bioeconomy?

I believe the future EU Forest Strategy should act as a “political bridge” between the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the Bioeconomy Strategy, having of course clear links to climate policies.  But I am not very optimistic about the future strategy and the overall political understanding on the important role that our forests play and should play in the EU Green Deal.

How do you think the resources of the Next Generation EU can be best used to enable sustainable development based on the circular bioeconomy?

Investing in our green infrastructures, our forests, which are suffering due to climate change and the increasing impact of natural disturbances is key! We need a massive adaption and restoration plan for European forests. Furthermore, investments in innovation are key to transform many of the existing technologies and scientific findings into new business models, including businesses to enhance biodiversity. Capacity building and education are also crucial to put forward the transformational change that we need; in the way we manage our land resources, the way we develop our cities and even the way we use science to inform politics.

EFI is focusing heavily on the role of cities and regions in the circular bioeconomy. What are your next steps?

I hope we can establish a Biocities Facility during 2021 that can generate and connect knowledge to action to rethink our cities, taking advantage of the conceptual framework of the circular bioeconomy and the opportunities that nature-based solutions and biobased materials offer. The idea of the facility is to catalyse transformative change by working across disciplines and sectors, bringing together architects, urban planners, foresters, ecologists and health experts. This year we start with the preparation of the Green Book of Biocities to stimulate a debate in that. 

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