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Insights / Article

27 May 2021 / 14 min read

The Future Will Be Bio-Based

From climate change to biodiversity loss, and most starkly with the COVID-19 pandemic, it's clear that society needs to radically change its relationship with nature but it doesn’t have much time left to get things right.

Aerial view of a pond filled with lotus at a wetland park on June 11, 2020 in Anlong County, Guizhou Province of China. Image: Liu chaofu/VCG via Getty Images.

The next decade will be critical for the environment and humanity. As we approach mid-century, we will have to overcome the enormous twin challenges of radically decarbonizing multiple sectors and halting huge species loss.1

At the same time, continuing urbanization will require urgent action, not only to build resilience into urban communities that will be most affected by climate change, but also to halt the huge resources used in the construction of cities. Indeed, by 2050, global urban material consumption is projected to increase by more than two-fold to 90 billion tonnes.23

The decisions that we make over the next decade – including which policies to leave behind, and which policies to embrace, as well as the voices we bring to the table, will determine the world's trajectory in meeting these challenges.

Adding to the challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended people’s daily lives, and many systems that seemed etched in stone, have been forced to come to a grinding halt or radically disrupted altogether - from dramatic shifts in energy use to the grounding of international travel.

The global pandemic has been devastating, challenging all of us to consider what a different future might look like. But the promise of $365 billion in green recovery funding from countries within the OECD, could provide the springboard needed to kick-start this shift, should talk translate into action.4

Furthermore, the continued presence of climate protests throughout 2020 shows there is appetite from citizens around the world for governments to deliver on reimagining humanity's future. Indeed, to avoid a climate and biodiversity catastrophe, and achieve long-term societal resilience, a more integrated approach to nature is needed incorporating it into everything from economic planning to urban design and from resource management to definitions of growth and prosperity. Achieving a bio-based future will require nothing less than reconstructing humanity's relationship with nature.

Changing values for a bio-based future

Reimagining this future will be a long and messy, but also, a creative process. Reexamining existing value systems which, in its current form, too often fails to deliver what the world needs, is a start. By interrogating the values that underlie our current models of consumption and economic thinking, we can begin to build a new value system which can serve as the basis for a refreshed relationship with nature.

Future work will need to tease out how value systems can best embrace the power of concepts like diversity, plurality, fairness, integrity, and above all, the value of life in all its forms.

Yet while there is widespread recognition that the current value system is not sustainable, nor fair, structural change has been slow. Existing regulations and institutional 'soft infrastructures' have locked society into the current status quo, so that, in addition to reexamining our current value system, we also need to challenge its entrenchment in governance and regulatory regimes particularly in the corporate and financial worlds.

In the urban context, for example, many Western cities are locked into an infrastructure design manifested in another era addressing a different set of problems with serious implications on mobility, housing, food choices and, ultimately, sustainability outcomes.

The financial system, and how it intersects with the natural world, is a case in point. In its current form, the financial system captures return on investment based on the profit generated from, for example, the sale of wood and fibre.

But in too many cases, it fails to capture the enormous value of the other solutions that nature can provide such as cooling our cities through urban roof gardens, protecting us from floods through mangrove plantations, purifying the water that comes from our taps and providing more resilience to our food system. 567

Underwater view of a mangrove forest in the Mayotte Marine Natural Park on November 28, 2017, Comoros archipelago, Indian Ocean. Mangroves are among the most biomass productive ecosystems on the planet. Image: Alexis Rosenfeld via Getty Images.

These, and a myriad of other nature-based solutions, will be essential to our bio-based future, and are estimated to offer up to 30 per cent of total emissions reductions needed to reach Paris Agreement targets by 2030.

However, they are all too often ignored by the current financial system.8 The current system lacks the tools, metrics and valuation models that recognize all the positive externalities that nature can provide today and in the future.

Even after years of scrutiny, the system continues to maximize profit in the short-term, with little thought for the future. Instead, it relies on an overly narrow understanding of value generation and often fails to incorporate broader social and environmental externalities of its actions.

For all of these reasons, the current financial system is unable to value the full spectrum of solutions that nature itself can bring to the world and therefore requires rapid reform to make clear its purpose in delivering a fair and sustainable world.

Technology could help, or hinder, a bio-based future

From the invention of new low-carbon solutions, to the widespread deployment of powerful small-scale innovations that can support social progress, technology and innovation will no doubt deliver many solutions for a low-carbon transition.

Looking further ahead, general purpose technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, will allow current resources to be used in vastly different ways.

Yet, it is important to not overlook the unintended consequences of technological advancements which include negative environmental and social impacts. Emissions from bitcoin mining in China alone, for example, are estimated to peak in 2024 at a value greater than the total emissions from the Czech Republic and Qatar thereby significantly undermining sustainability efforts.9

It is therefore critical that governments understand the negative consequences of future technological breakthroughs but also takes steps to mitigate those harmful effects while also supporting the spread of positive outcomes. Interrogations should include what type of technological innovation is occurring and where, who is owning the process, what type of benefit does it bring to wider society as a whole and what are the unintended social consequences of such breakthroughs?

Despite these unintended consequences, a bio-based future requires technological innovation. The amount of creativity, knowledge, human and financial resource that was mobilized to develop, produce and deliver effective COVID-19 vaccines is likely to become a powerful driving force in accelerating the scale and pace of disruption where tech and bio intersect.

Multiple future outcomes are possible. From a broader societal vantage point, the challenge will be how to harness these new frontiers of bio-based tech, innovation and design to deliver for the environment and humanity. From the bio-fabrication of mycelium fungi 10 to creating a plethora of alternative and substitute materials, bio-inspired design can inform, and even supersede, existing unsustainable practices.

New and diverse voices are needed

Whether looking to reform the financial system, or developing the next major tech breakthrough, the most potent solutions will emerge from a diversity of voices from a different backgrounds.

Incumbent powers from across industries and governments have been instrumental in shaping the world as it is today and instrumental in creating some of the most challenging problems we face too. This group should not be relied upon alone to devise the solutions needed to build a sustainable and equitable future, not least, because some of the most effective solutions will likely challenge their influential positions.

Instead, connecting powerbrokers with the change agents of the future, and together, debating and interrogating everything required to realize a greener future, will be vital. Bringing new voices to the table is crucial in creating transformative solutions because these voices will define our future.

Thousands of Irish students took part in a climate protest in Dublin to demand the Irish government an immediate action on climate change. 2019, Dublin, Ireland. Image: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

While intergovernmental cooperation will continue to play a critical role in shaping our world, nation states, which often fail to fully represent the interests of all of their citizens, may lose much of the significance that they have held over the past century, in part, because many of today’s collective challenges are either too local or too global for the nation-state model to capture.

That’s why, moving forward, multiple channels of governance – and dialogue – will be needed to connect different types of state, non-state and civil society actors.

Realizing the vision of a bio-based future that is fair and sustainable, requires a re-evaluation of the current value systems, interrogations of entrenched assumptions that lock the world into unsustainable practices and a new host of voices at the table.

Working at the intersection of finance, innovation and sustainability and identifying emerging trends will help to navigate how reaching a bio-based future could be possible. This process will be difficult and at times chaotic. But the focus must be to ensure that the solutions are broadened to serve, not just people, but nature as well.