Bioeconomy is a hot topic for scientists and policymakers. Rapid advances in molecular biology combined with big data and artificial intelligence have resulted in big jumps in our understanding of living organisms, including the biomass produced by plants and animals, at the level of their DNA.

That has gone hand in hand with technologies that allow scientists and industry to manipulate, easily, everything from enzymes to bacteria to plants and animals.

Industry can now make bio-based plastics from plant oils rather than fossil-based sources. Those bio-based plastics can be made bio-degradable, even in oceans, or they can be made durable, to replace glass.

So rapid are the changes in science and manufacturing, and so profound are its implications, that some refer to the new bio-economy, that uses bio-based sources for pretty much anything in our economy, as the 4th industrial revolution.

The traditional bioeconomy is not new – it is agriculture and forestry, or the agro-food system.

But clearly the current agro-food system is not sustainable. It produces roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, has led to degraded soils in a very large share of cultivated land, is responsible for some 70 percent of all water used by man and thus is a key factor in water scarcity. It overuses chemical fertilizers that causes massive pollution in rivers, lakes and coastal zones, and is responsible for the lion’s share of deforestation, loss of wetlands and biodiversity.

In short, our current agro-food system is the primary driver of our planet’s ill health – and it produces unhealthy food that has produced 2 billion overweight and obese people causing massive health problems.

Avoiding deforestation

The most important natural climate change solution is to prevent deforestation, reforest, and restore peatlands. A good example is Colombia. About 40 percent of the country lies in the Amazon, some 46 million hectares, which is the size of Germany. About 39 million hectares are still forest.

A key component in the Colombian national green growth policy that Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) is helping to develop is a modern, sustainable bioeconomy with focus on activities ranging from biofuels with palm species to pharmacological compounds.

In Indonesia, GGGI supports the government to develop sustainable business models to restore the peatlands, also with Norwegian funding. Our analyses show that restoration of the 40,000 hectare Utar-Serapat peatland dome in Central Kalimantan could generate 600,000 tons of carbon credits.

Can biomass energy strengthen the world’s energy security?

There just isn’t enough biomass available to do so sustainably, without competing with other uses, from food (for sugarcane or corn) to maintaining a healthy soil (for agri-waste).

In Vietnam, for example, 8 of 41 sugar mills already have grid-connected waste-to-energy plants. The total biomass waste-to-energy potential in Soc Trang province may be as much as 50 MW under one optimistic scenario. Vietnam is planning to build another 24 coal-fired power plants, however, and clearly biomass energy is not going to be an alternative source of renewable energy at that scale.

Of the total energy used in the world in 2015, an estimated 19 percent was renewable energy, about half of it unsustainable traditional biomass energy. Worldwide, 3 billion people still do not have access to clean energy for cooking, meaning that they prepare food on open wood fires.

In Cambodia, 80 percent of Cambodian families in rural areas use wood for daily cooking. Industry also uses around 780,000 ton of firewood annually. GGGI is now looking at ways to green the Cambodian industry as part of its policy alignment for green growth project.

Can the bioeconomy be a driver of green growth?

Already, avoided deforestation, reforestation and peatland restoration are key priorities for the green growth strategies of GGGI member countries. A modern, sustainable bioeconomy can be a key strategy to make this successful, as is underway in Colombia.

For many of GGGI’s member and partner countries, the traditional bioeconomy, agriculture and forestry, is still the backbone of the economy and responsible for 60-70 percent of employment. For all these countries, innovation that significantly and sustainably increases the value of their agricultural products, or uses waste products smartly, will be critical to create the decent green jobs.

How building a bioeconomy works.
Image: Global Green Growth Institute

Finding such green growth-related innovation is an important goal for GGGI. If the modern bioeconomy develops into the 4th industrial revolution, then many least-developed countries are in a good position to take advantage and transform their economies towards an environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive development path to achieve green growth.