Bioeconomy discussions at COP27 2022 went back to the land, with regenerative agriculture featuring as the major theme in discussions.
Here were the highlights:
– Fashion multinationals LVMH and Italian fashion house Brunello Cucinelli released updates on regenerative agriculture projects to green the luxury supply chain
– MENA biomaterials startups discussed their feed and packaging products at COP27’s biobased climate solutions event
– A new look at sustainable timber as a climate solution and biomaterial feedstock
Bioeconomy As Climate Solution
COP27 hosted one event devoted solely to bio-based materials as a climate solution. Named the “Meeting climate targets through circular bio-based solutions for plastics, chemicals, energy and agriculture”, the panel discussion was the first ever bioeconomy event to be held inside the UN-managed Blue Zone, a section devoted to international negotiations.
Participants in the discussion included the CEO of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, the UNIDO Director of Circular Economy and Environmental Protection, the World BioEconomy Forum, founded 2018 to promote the bioeconomy agenda, and biobased business leaders from MENA and South Asia.
The panel discussion celebrated recent advances in the bioeconomy with the World BioEconomy Forum, drawing attention to the US and China’s new national biostrategies. It also pointed out that Finland renewed its commitments in April while the East African Union released a strategy in June. The EU reviewed its 10-year old biostrategy over the summer.
Nonetheless, it also underlined that bioproducts remain an under-utilised climate strategy due to a lack of incentives. A company that jettisons petrochemical materials in favour of bio-based ones would not be able to claim a carbon credit for this under voluntary carbon offsetting rules. Under mandatory carbon offsetting schemes too, a government agency that decides to procure biobased products may not count this towards the national carbon reduction target.
The World BioEconomy Forum argued that buying bioproducts must be listed as carbon credit in voluntary carbon markets in the same way that buying tracts of carbon -sequestering habitat are.
The panel showcased some emerging MENA bio-sector startups, among them EGYMAG of Egypt, the first insect-based biotech firm in the region. This renewable protein company produces animal feed protein and fertilizer from Black soldier fly fed on organic waste streams. The method reduces carbon emissions associated with conventional animal feed drawn from animal protein sources.
Ahmed Madhi Rady Magpie, founder and CEO of EGYMAG, emphasised the size of his company’s potential market. Noting that 10 million tons of animal and fish feed are bought in Egypt each year, he said that EGYMAG producing 400, 000 tonnes could capture 5 percent of the national market. Like his European and US counterparts, scaling the business is now his chief preoccupation.
Chitosan Egypt – the first Chitosan manufacturer in the MENA region – also participated in the discussion. Like EGYMAG, it valorises local waste to produce chitosan organic pesticides and fertilisers as well as lab-quality chitosan.
Both Chitosan Egypt and EGYMAG have a business model that is valuable from an environmental perspective because it supports regenerative, circular agricultural systems. By producing agricultural fertilisers from farm waste, they place unused nutrients back into the agricultural cycle.
Combining circular and bio-based principles can align businesses with both carbon reduction and biodiversity conservation goals. Models like EGYMAG’s which focus on returning nutrients back to cropland can help tackle the ravages of linear, high-intensity agriculture wrecking the health of the world’s soils – the fundamental basis of our food supply.
With the rise of algae bioplastics and mycelium textiles, the role that traditional biomaterials like wood can play in decarbonisation tend to be sidelined.
Currently, wood taken from plantations make up 50 percent of the global industrial roundwood supply. The event highlighted the need to boost sustainable timber supply in line with projected demand for biofuels, clothing, and pharmaceuticals. A recent UN FAO report said that 33 million hectares of new plantations will be needed to meet future demand.
The timber plantation industry is commonly seen as a contributor of climate breakdown than a solution to it. Its reputation is like that of intensive agriculture, as an industry that destroys natural biodiversity to make way for a narrow range of crop spices. Old-growth forests and other natural habitats are generally far better carbon stores than monocultures of timber species.
Challenging this was the discussion ‘Keeping 1.5 degrees alive through growing the climate-smart forestry based bioeconomy’ held on November the 14th. Hosted by the Brazilian Tree Industry (iba) & the Australian Forest Products Association, it opened a discussion on how plantations used by the timber sector might be sustainability exploited both as sources of low-carbon biomaterials and as atmospheric carbon sinks.
While plantation management requires governance and reform, wood can offer a base for a range of plastic alternatives, from basic fibre for packaging or lignocellulose, a component inside tree bark that can be formed into substitutes for a range of petrochemical products.
Fashion And The Bioeconomy
When Charles II became king after the death of his Queen Elizabeth in September 2022, the UK government pressured him not to attend the upcoming COP27. Many saw his support for the climate conference as incompatible with his new duties as a neutral head of state.
Although Charles stayed away from COP this year, his longstanding efforts at crosslinking environmental NGOs and private equity meant his influence was felt at the conference nonetheless. Two bioeconomy announcements made by private sector firms at COP27 were connected directly to his advocacy work.
One of the announcements came from LVMH, which owns 75 luxury companies including Louis Vuitton. In May 2022, the multinational announced a collaboration with the Circular Bioeconoy Alliance (CBA), founded in 2020 by the then-Prince of Wales. The project aims to improve social and environmental impacts of the luxury cotton supply chain by rolling out regenerative agriculture on Chadian cotton farms via the CBA’s Living Lab project.
Although Chad’s farmers rely on growing cotton for export, the water-intensive crop is draining the country’s water supply. The problems with high-intensity cotton farming however goes even beyond its water needs. Monocultural cropping of any kind destroys ecosystem resilience. By ploughing over natural biodiversity to make way for a few economically valuable species, the ecosystem struggles to maintain itself. A less biologically productive habitat has consequences for agriculture, with fewer species enriching the soil with nutrients and providing pollination services.
Regenerative agriculture can break the link between crop yield, income, and ecological destruction by coaxing natural inter-relationships between organisms, soil, and natural features into maintaining soil quality without synthetic inputs from humans. By working with the features of the local environment, these techniques can produce a self-sustaining cropland that can maintain yields year after year.
One regenerative technique that LVMH and the CBA plan to implement in Chad is to plant tall tree species in amongst cotton crops. This will form a natural canopy that limits the soil and plant moisture lost to the atmosphere, reducing the watering required and mitigating drought conditions that are being fuelled by intensive export cotton. The collaboration will establish community tree nurseries to grow the introduced species.
Brunello Cucinelli was another luxury fashion brand allied with King Charles’ ESG work in attendance at COP27. Brunello Cucinelli, the CEO of the Italian brand and known as the ‘Cashmere king’, injected €1 million Euros into the Himalaya Regenerative Fashion Living Lab project in May 2022 organised by King Charles’ Sustainable Market’s Initiative Fashion Taskforce.
With help from the NGO Reforest Action and the Circular Bioeconomy Alliance, the project aims to rebuild degraded land around the Western and Eastern Himalayas by implementing regenerative farming techniques. The goal is to build up sustainable fashion value chains in textiles like cashmere.
The brand used COP27 to announce “significant progress” in the project.
The Path Ahead
Three messages ran through the various bioeconomy events at COP27.
First was the need to build a global bioeconomy that matches the scale of petrochemicals manufacturing today.
Scaling is not just critical for meeting growing demand but in achieving environmental outcomes. Even as developed economies inch towards decarbonisation, destructive fossil fuel value chains are still outsourced to poorer parts of the world.
Second was the sense that bioproducts remain an underutilised strategy for achieving a fossil-free, biodiversity-preserving economy. Although the bioeconomy gained more visibility at 2022’s COP27 than at previous conferences, only one panel discussion at COP27 focused on specifically bio-based manufacturing solutions.
Finally, there was an underlying emphasis on regenerative agriculture at the bioeconomy COP, reminding us that the bioeconomy’s contribution towards decarbonisation and conservation will depend on where and how its feedstock is grown.
As the bio-based economy races towards lab-grown products, land-based agriculture will remain integral to feedstock supply. To ensure that the environmental impacts of a bio-based economy are kept to a minimum, it is critical that feedstock is produced along circular and organic principles techniques that sustain soil health and protect biodiversity.