Paul's Column: why the threat of climate change is also an opportunity

23 October 2018

Climate change is indeed, as Al Gore said, an Inconvenient Truth.  The stark science as set out in the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives us 12 years to get our act together or face irreversible climate change.

The IPCC specifically asked politicians to show leadership on climate change, to which the most powerful democratically elected politician in the world replied, “I don't know that it's manmade” and that temperatures "could very well go back".

Is there any hope?  Yes, because threats are also opportunities.

The threat posed by climate change has been clearly spelt out, what hasn’t been made so clear is that climate change is also an opportunity to create a circular bioeconomy that addresses climate change while simultaneously driving a wave of innovation that creates jobs and growth.

The European Commission estimates that the circular bioeconomy could create one million new jobs across the European Union by 2030, providing food, products and energy, without exhausting our planet's limited biological resources.

The concept of the circular economy, while not referred to using this terminology, is well embedded in the public’s consciousness and referred to as recycling.  Steel is the most recycled material on the planet with a reuse rate of 86 per cent in 2014.  Nearly 75 per cent of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today.  Here in the North East the Austrian firm Egger make wooden kitchen units at Hexham using 50% recycled wood.

If you combine the notion of recycling with the explanation that it also needs to be circular to avoid depleting the world´s limited resources then you’ve understood the circular economy.

However the concept of the bioeconomy is much less well known.  The bioeconomy is the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy.  It is an exciting area of innovation while at the same time as being necessary so we can build a carbon neutral future in line with the climate objectives of the UN Paris climate change agreement of 2015.

Two weeks ago the European Commission produced its revised bioeconomy strategy - the original came out in 2012.  Many of us were pleased to see some revisions had been made in particular the benefits of the use of engineered wood in the construction industry had been added and highlighted.

In the original strategy there seemed a tendency to focus on the more amazing possibilities of what the bioeconomy can produce e.g. everything that is currently made from finite oil could in time be made from infinite biological material.

But we don’t have time, rather we need some big quick wins in the battle against climate change.  Which is why it is so important that engineered wood products for the construction industry have been given prominence in the EU’s revised bioeconomy strategy.  In fact they are the first product of the bioeconomy to be cited, “For instance, in the construction sector engineered wood offers great environmental benefits as well as excellent economic opportunities. Studies show that the average impact of building with 1 ton of wood instead of 1 ton of concrete could lead to an average reduction of 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the complete life cycle of the product.”

Constructing buildings out of wood doesn’t sound very amazing because we have always made buildings out of wood.  But the engineered timbers we are making now enable us to build to a height (40 storeys plus) and at a scale never previously possible.

We have a global housing crisis and if we build the homes that the UK, China, India, Mexico, Brazil etc. need using traditional building methods predicated on concrete, steel, brick and block - whose collective manufacture accounts for some 15% of global carbon emissions - then it’s game over in the battle against climate change. Hence the manufacture, why not here in the North East, and use of engineered timbers like Cross Laminated Timber needs to be scaled up immediately. 

For the hour is late and the time is short which is why we need to act quickly to deliver the circular bioeconomy.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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