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Opinion: Our forests could be a brilliant antidote for our reliance on fossil fuels - here’s why

Investing in nature holds countless benefits, says Professor Kevin O’Connor.

Prof Kevin O'Connor Director of the BEACON Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre

EVERY YEAR, SCIENCE WEEK encourages people around Ireland to ask questions about the world that they inhabit. This year, the focus is on climate action – what should we know about the world’s changing climate? To address this, we’ll hear from the country’s leading scientists about the minor but meaningful changes we can make to protect our world.

Recently, scientists have been discussing the bioeconomy as one of the possible keys to tackling climate change – so what exactly is it?

For many people, climate change seems distant as we can’t see major consequences in Ireland happening yet – for example, for the most part, we turn on the tap and our water is still running. But in order to try to reach our emission targets, we need to cut down considerably on our use of fossil fuels and the bioeconomy could be the answer to that. 

Ireland’s bioeconomy is the conversion of our natural resources into products of value, along with the management of these resources. For us in Ireland, it’s mainly agriculture, fisheries and forestry. We convert these into things like food and construction materials.

These resources were used originally to produce things like glues and dyes from agriculture and forestry, before we then started using fossil fuels. As we urgently need to decrease our use of fossil fuels, things like plastic and dye will now have to come from our bioeconomy. We need a lot of people to come together and row in the right direction for this to happen. 

But what’s really important is that we manage these resources properly – we need to make sure we’re not growing things and damaging the environment by using too much land, fertiliser or water or causing deforestation. Not only can the bioeconomy contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases, it can also increase biodiversity. 

Firstly, it helps to protect habitats – let’s say you’re growing a crop and you’re using herbicide or pesticide, it may be possible to take that out of the cultivation process and use natural or traditional approaches to pest control, so that we cause no harm to both the environment and the species that live there. And if we diversify our food crops, it promotes biodiversity in relation to the animals and insects that live near that crop.

But we also need to look at our practices and how to introduce certain species. Maybe it’s about mixed plant species in a particular field where one plant is the crop and one would be able to deal with pests. Fewer crops mean our food system is at an increased risk of being more greatly impacted. More crops reduces that risk and reduces the need for pesticide use.

So, what can we do as individuals to support the bioeconomy?

Using products made from our natural resources is one way to support the bioeconomy. But the bioeconomy is not a way to simply switch from fossil and continue bad habits. We need to consume in a sustainable manner and within the boundaries of our planet.

Undoubtedly, we need to cut down on our material use such as plastic use. It’s a huge challenge – animals encounter these in the environment, choke on them or ingest them and it causes big problems for their digestive systems. While bio-based plastics (coming from nature) will solve certain issues such as reducing greenhouse gases, we need to be thinking about reducing plastic use.

Ideally, we should design plastics that will never end up in the environment – our waste management system should pick them up and either recycle them or where they are also biodegradable put them in the compost. Marine-degradable plastic sounds like a good idea but in fact it can allow polluters to continue their bad habits.

Fishing nets and other plastics do end up in the sea as a result of fisheries activity and making these marine biodegradable is in principle a good idea, but biodegradable packaging will not solve the ocean plastic pollution problem. It says, ‘Keep throwing away our plastic as the sea will take care of it.’ Sometimes these plastics take between two and six months to break down – that’s still a long time for them to interact with wildlife.

louis-hansel-yjoZHz2kue0-unsplash Source: Unsplash

If we want to support a sustainable bioeconomy, we need to buy food that is local and that isn’t using a lot of fertilisers, pesticides or water – all of these contribute to climate change. We do need to look at diversifying our sources of protein which I know is not popular.

We also need to not beat agriculture with a stick. It has been a challenge for greenhouse gas emissions, but as a scientist I believe we need to work with the sector to help to find new solutions and improved practices involving diversification.

As a consumer, you can also help by buying bio-based products such as bio-based plastics, glues and paints that use natural dyes. You can also pick up bio-based, natural fertilisers in your local garden centre – such as seaweed (which farmers traditionally used).

If you look at the younger generation, they are interested in things like diet and transport and their effects on the environment. They opt for things like electric cars and having a more balanced protein diet – there are major factors where the younger generation can have a huge impact.

Why is it the younger generation that is leading the charge on this?

In relation to the recent climate strikes, I think every generation has something that resonates with them – usually something that frightens them. But it’s motivated them to put pressure on governments to do something. Climate change is something they see they will foot the bill with when the older generation is gone.

The carbon tax is an important part of that – Ireland is about €20/tonne in carbon pricing moving to €80/tonne. It’s €114/tonne in Sweden. They introduced it in 1991 and slowly transitioned over time. 

There’s a role for the government to make sure that renewables are more accessible and that people are going to be incentivised to use them. It’s not just about the carbon tax – we need incentives for people to be environmentally friendly. The youth want change and the older generation don’t want to get heavily taxed – the system has to promote change but the transition has to be just.

Making it worthwhile for people

For example, in (economic and social theorist) Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution, he talks about the fact that there’s a movement coming and the electricity suppliers already know this. Solar energy is becoming so cheap that they will eventually manage a grid that comes from the people – paying them to provide electricity.

While carbon tax is needed, the World Wildlife Fund has said it can’t be on its own – it needs to be with other incentives such as making cities much more accessible by bicycle. There needs to be incentives for taking a car off the road and using other alternatives. Policy also needs to be developed to help society make the right food choices. For example, ’2 for 1′ offers – is this rewarding food waste? Why not one for half price?

Afforestation is also needed but we need to capture the imagination of the Irish people to invest in it. We could create forests that act as a biodiversity-promoting ecosystem and make these new sites for recreation and education, for example. We need to incentivise farmers to build forests but also people to invest in them – this could be through public sponsorship, school participation and pension investments.

jaleel-akbash-bREMT7g5ToU-unsplash Source: Unsplash

Water conservation

Access to clean water is a huge issue for the UN Sustainable Development Goals – only 1% of the world’s water is available for humankind – the vast majority is salt water and some of it is ice. It’s a huge challenge – so, how do we conserve water?

Do we need to look at building design and regulations and how we can use our buildings to capture rain? Buildings in Ireland are not designed with water capture in mind – that’s bonkers in a country like Ireland – we’ve already seen water restrictions in Ireland during the summer.

We need systems to maximise the use of rooftops so that the water can be used in modern houses for toilets and showers but also green roofs that retain water, capture CO2 and promote biodiversity. These technologies are available – we should be incentivising them.

Looking forward 

While we’ve realised that we don’t actually have enough land to replace fossil fuels with biomass-derived fuels, there are many other solutions we need to look at such as wave energy, solar energy and tidal energy to satisfy our energy demands as a society.

Biomass is probably best used to make materials and chemicals, and its byproducts to produce heat, biofuel and bioenergy. We need an integrated approach to production of these, similar to how crude oil is refined to produce chemicals, material, fuels and energy.

What we’re also learning is that nature gives us a huge level of molecules that are good for our health that fossil-based resources cannot give us. What has emerged is that many of the crops people want to grow to make plastics also contain a whole host of other things that will be beneficial for human health, that we might one day see as food and animal feed supplements.

There is no silver bullet to the huge challenge that faces us with climate change. But there are many things we can do as communities to make changes that will have a long-lasting positive impact on our lives – the single biggest one is our behaviour.

Professor Kevin O’Connor in conversation with Hannah Popham.

Professor O’Connor lectures at the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science in UCD. He’s also the director of the BEACON Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre and the co-founder of Bioplastech, which develops biodegradable alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics.

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About the author:

Prof Kevin O'Connor  / Director of the BEACON Bioeconomy SFI Research Centre

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