/ 9 August 2020

What a sustainable Covid-19 recovery could look like

Safrica Lifestyle Safrica Lifestyle Envirnoment Baobab
Nature’s bountry: Fhatuwani Maguvha prepares to crush a baobab fruit to extract its seeds at the Eco Products lab in Louis Trichardt. About 1 000 women in the village of Muswodi Dipeni earn a living by harvesting baobab fruit pods. Such projects are part of a sustainable future based on bioeconomy. (Photo: Marco Longari/AFP)

Covid-19 is as contagious economically as it is medically. Estimates by the Centre for Risk Studies at the University of Cambridge put the worst-case scenario cost of the pandemic to the global economy at a nightmarish $82-trillion over five years, with an optimistic loss of $3.3-trillion in the case of speedy recovery. 

Like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change is one of the most serious challenges the world has faced in recent times. The consensus among scientists, international agencies and leading organisations in climate science is that the increase in the Earth’s temperature is anthropogenic — that is, man-made.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report specifies that three of the top five global risks relate to climate change. It exacerbates existing risks and creates new risks for human and natural systems.  

Africa is one of the hotspots of vulnerability to the adverse effects of climate change, with multiple biophysical, political and socioeconomic stresses interacting to increase the continent’s susceptibility and constrain its adaptive capacity.  

Productivity in several African countries depends on natural resources; climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism; and climate-sensitive infrastructure, such as houses, buildings, municipal services and transport networks.

Endemic poverty, lack of awareness, and lack of access to knowledge also limits the continent’s adaptive capacity to cope with climate-change effects. With increasing temperatures, the Food and Agricultural Organisation projects that there will be a loss of 2% to 7% of gross domestic product by 2100 in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Avoiding the worst effects of climate change required compliance with the Paris Agreement of 2015, which set the goal of keeping global warming well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.  

But the gap between current trends and emission-reduction targets set by countries through their nationally determined contributions — which were already insufficient to limit global warming to 2°C — is widening and leading to somewhere between 3°C and 4°C of warming. 

Concomitant with the announcement of policy measures to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been growing calls to build back better by ensuring tackling climate change is at the top of the agenda. 

Already, the Covid-19 pandemic is having multifaceted consequences on the energy sector and carbon emissions. It has triggered the largest-ever fall in carbon emissions, estimated to be about 5.5% less in 2020 than in 2019. Emissions reductions caused by economic downturns tend to be temporary — and can lead to emissions growth as economies attempt to get back on track. 

The pandemic could either accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy or result in the burning of more fossil fuels. The role of forward-looking policies to avoid the latter effect — and, instead, promote the former — is crucial. 

The use of renewable biological resources as substitutes for other (fossil) resources has been identified as a solution to the geopolitical challenges, including climate change. The Global Bioeconomy Summit defined bioeconomy as the production, use and conservation of biological resources, including related knowledge, science, technology and innovation, to provide information, products, processes and services across all economic sectors aiming towards a sustainable economy. 

A bioeconomy uses renewable natural capital to holistically transform and manage our land, food, health and industrial systems. It presents an opportunity to reduce dependence on fossil-derived resources and achieve the ambitious Paris climate target. It also holds significant promise for achieving sustainable development. 

The transition to a knowledge-based bioeconomic production system is supposed to terminate the existing negative relations between economic growth and environmental pollution, the use of resources, climate change, and energy consumption, and to promote a sustainable economy. Other paradigms driving the transition to bioeconomy include biotechnological advancements, economic considerations and changing demographics. 

In a world shaken by unsustainable conundrums, chiefly attributed to high dependence on non-renewable resources, bioeconomy has gained traction, both in science and policy, as a new economic system to mitigate and adapt to sustainability challenges that have characterised the Anthropocene era. 

According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the bioeconomy presents a $7.7-trillion opportunity for business by 2030, and offers a nature-based solution that addresses five of our greatest environmental priorities: climate change, resource scarcity, biodiversity loss, food loss and waste, and land degradation. 

Bioeconomy, however, has not been adopted by many African countries: only South Africa has a defined bioeconomy strategy; Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda have some bioeconomy-related activities. 

A recent study published in Springer’s African Handbook of Climate Change Adaptation uses the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development aggregation method to calculate the readiness of African countries to adopt bioeconomy. 

The researchers report that many African countries are endowed with relatively abundant natural biomass, yet they are poorly equipped to adopt bioeconomy for climate action. This is mainly due to the poor state of investment in research and development (R&D) and the dearth of people in R&D. This is exemplified by poor government spending on R&D, a lack of patent applications, a dearth of researchers and technicians, an absence of the latest technologies, poor industrial production processes, poor university-industry collaboration, and poor institutional arrangements.

South Africa, the only country with defined bioeconomy strategy in Africa, has the best bioeconomy readiness index on the continent. The possible policy implication of this is that formulating a dedicated national bioeconomy strategy as an integral part of national development agenda will help to improve the state of bioeconomy production determinants in Africa.

The coronavirus pandemic offers a unique opportunity to transform our economy and put forward the change that our society needs to create a sustainable and desirable future. A transition to bioeconomy will contribute to long-term, structural change towards a low-carbon economy. 

This competitive, ecologically sustainable and socially acceptable economy is desirable in Africa to change the unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, to attain a new economic growth model and to ensure future resource security and sustained livelihoods. 

Strategies to promote the bioeconomy in Africa must focus on targeted investments to support R&D activities; building efficient and sustainable innovation ecosystems; improving the education, training and skills of the workforce; and supporting market development to enhance competitiveness. 

Furthermore, African countries must improve general governance, the quality of their infrastructure, and the rule of law, to attract foreign investment in the bioeconomy sectors.

Oluwaseun Oguntuase is at the Centre for Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development at Lagos State University in Nigeria