Sarah Friederich, GEN Europe
We live on a planet with limited resources. During the last decades, natural systems have been continuously overexploited by human activity, which lead to a serious degradation of ecosystems, loss in biodiversity and climate change. Yet human development and wellbeing are reliant on natural systems, and we cannot continue to enjoy the former without taking care of the latter. In many ways, we cannot continue with “business as usual”. We need to find ways of addressing the crucial questions of how to limit global warming to 1.5°C and restore degraded ecosystems while at the same time feeding a growing global population.
The challenge we are facing is none like any other. According to the Living Planet Report 2018 of WWF, over the past 50 years our Ecological Footprint (a measure of our consumption of natural resources) has increased by about 190%. But what would another kind of development look like, one that does not degrade the ecosystems we rely on? The figure below shows the relationship between the Ecological Footprint and the Human Development Index of countries. In order to live within the limits of the world’s biocapacity while ensuring human wellbeing, all countries would have to be in the sustainable development quadrant at the bottom right of the figure. The distance between most countries and that quadrant shows the magnitude of the challenge we are facing.
To replace the current, fossil fuel and growth-based economies and mitigate climate change, a transition to a low-carbon society is urgently needed. This shift requires innovative and systemic responses at many levels, driven by governments, industry, academia and local communities. We need to find new ways of producing and consuming.
One of the approaches aimed at mitigating climate change by replacing fossil fuels with renewable biomass is the bioeconomy. A circular bioeconomy has the potential to contribute to more sustainable practices and to mitigate climate change through techniques ranging from simple ones such as turning waste into raw materials used for manufacturing, to highly complex ones like creating a whole range of new and eco-friendly materials such as bioplastics.
The Global Ecovillage Network GEN Europe is one of 12 partner organizations involved in the Horizon 2020 funded project BLOOM. The main objective of the project is to establish open and informed dialogues on bioeconomy, co-created by European citizens, civil society, innovation networks, local research centres, business, industry stakeholders and various levels of government. BLOOM is creating spaces for the needed debate on preferences and values concerning the bioeconomy; for interaction and exchange of information, knowledge, meaning and aspirations, with the aim of establishing consensus on how a bioeconomy can be realized.
A circular bioeconomy can help lessen the environmental impact of resource use, but a systems approach that manages social, economic and environmental considerations together is required. In order for the production of bio-based products to be sustainable, practices that conserve natural ecosystems, biodiversity, soil fertility and water quality are essential. According to the new European Bioeconomy Strategy, “to be successful, the European bioeconomy needs to have sustainability at its heart and be circular by definition. The purpose of the updated European Bioeconomy Strategy is therefore to further develop a bioeconomy that valorises and preserves ecosystems and biological resources, drives the renewal of our industries and the modernisation of our primary production systems through bio-based innovation, involves local stakeholders, protects the environment and enhances biodiversity.”
An economy founded on biomass instead of fossil fuels marks a significant shift in socioeconomic, agricultural, energy and technical systems. However, the implementation of these measures and changes is challenging at national and international levels. Additionally, other approaches and responses are required at other levels, if we want to transition to a low-carbon society in the needed time expediently.
At the local level, where the process of transformation is more manageable, many communities are already taking initiatives themselves and creating small-scale local solutions for human development and wellbeing that do not strive for the traditional goals of economic growth. The communities and ecovillages that are members of the Global Ecovillage Network GEN Europe are examples of such initiatives, alongside others such as community gardens, community energy cooperatives, social enterprises and zero-waste initiatives. Some of them are going way beyond the EU targets agreed for 2020 in the reduction of their carbon footprint and are showcasing what a sustainable lifestyle could look like locally. Ecovillages are implementing local sustainable solutions, in the form of sustainable building techniques, organic agriculture and permaculture, using renewable energy sources and finding alternatives to the provisioning of a number of goods and services. Moreover, communities and ecovillages work with social innovation, experimenting with alternative forms of governance and organization and creating a different narrative on how to live in a regenerative way.
The European research project TESS explored the role of community-based initiatives in creating a sustainable, low-carbon Europe. It found that “if 5% of European citizens engaged as beneficiaries of CBIs similar to the ones sampled, almost 85% of the EU-28 countries would meet the target of reducing GHG emissions by 20% by 2020 (considering the food/agriculture, waste, energy and transport domains).” Local community-based initiatives and grassroots movements have an immense potential to contribute to the shift to a regenerative future. They prototype and test sustainable innovative practices in everyday life, effecting changes that are socially embedded from the outset.
In order to face global problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, ecological degradation and economic inequality, many different kinds of solutions will be needed: a blend of solutions aimed at changing complex larger systems at political, industrial and economic levels such as the circular bioeconomy, as well as small-scale bottom-up solutions like the ones proposed by local communities and ecovillages. In the end, in order to have a lasting effect, all solutions will have to be socially accepted and embedded. There are many ways how each one of us can contribute towards a more sustainable economic system: through the everyday choices we make, the products we decide to consume or to abstain from, through the way we choose to live. We need to rethink and redefine the way we relate to nature and to each other, what we consider our deepest aspirations and how we define what a happy and well-lived life looks like.
 Definition of the European Commission: “The bioeconomy covers all sectors and systems that rely on biological resources – animals, plants, micro-organisms and derived biomass, including organic waste – as well as their functions and principles. It includes and interlinks: land and marine ecosystems and the services they provide; all primary production sectors that use and produce biological resources (agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture); and all economic and industrial sectors that use biological resources and processes to produce food, feed, bio-based products, energy and services.” (Bioeconomy Strategy of the European Commission, 2018)
 Bioeconomy: the European way to use our natural resources. Action Plan 2018, European Commission
 Community-based initiatives