Green economy on the up and up
More and more countries and companies are focusing on resource efficiency, the circular economy and sustainability. Along with ecological motives, economic factors also play a prominent role here. Resource conservation pays off: sustainable products and services go down well with consumers.
By Steffen Klatt, 18.07.2017
Canada produces a lot of oil. However, the extraction of oil from tar sand is associated with large volumes of greenhouse gas emissions. The halving of the oil price since 2014 has prompted increasing numbers of oil concerns to leave Canada’s oil in the ground.
Cleantech as an innovation strategy
Justin Trudeau’s government, which has been in power since 2015, is focusing on innovation instead. Cleantech is the most important pillar of this strategy, even ahead of digitisation and the country’s all-important food sector. The new government’s declared aim is to make Canada into a globally leading cleantech location. In its budget for 2017, the government has allocated a total of CAD 1.35 billion (CHF 1 billion) for the growth and expansion of cleantech companies. In addition, Sustainable Development Technology Canada’s flagship programme SD Tech Fund is being provided with an additional CAD 400 million over a period of four years. Since its establishment in 2001, the programme has invested a total of CAD 928 million in 320 projects and thereby generated a further CAD 2.45 million in investments. Canada’s provinces are also focusing on cleantech. Québec, for example, specialises in sustainable mobility: the Swiss technology concern ABB has its North American Centre of Excellence in e-Mobility in Montréal.
The circular economy as a driver of the economy
Finland is also setting itself ambitious goals. In an action plan passed in February 2016, it set itself the aim of becoming a pioneer in the bio-economy and circular economy. It wants to create jobs, strengthen the economy and fulfil the country’s ambitious ecological targets through the development, launch and export of sustainable solutions. Apart from renewable energies, sustainable food production and new forest projects, the action plan’s key projects include the circular economy. The aim here is to recycle an increasing proportion of household waste. The government is even considering a strategy that could lead to the complete elimination of waste. The main focus here is on creating new products from materials that currently end up in landfill and even in the water. The government has made a total of EUR 34 million available up to 2018 for the recovery of chemicals from water alone.
Building on the government’s decision, Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, presented a concrete roadmap for the development of the circular economy up to 2025. Like Canada, Finland sees itself as a global pioneer. Sitra invited around 1,500 experts from all over the world to participate in the first World Circular Economy Forum 2017, which was held in June of this year.
Timber structures scale the heights
Other countries are also working to develop their existing natural advantages. For example, Finland’s neighbour Sweden is focusing on the area of timber construction. As is the case elsewhere, timber structures were previously considered old-fashioned in Sweden, particularly in the cities, and demolished. This trend has now been reversed. For example, the construction company Folkhem, which specialises in timber construction, built the highest building consisting almost entirely of wood to-date in Stockholm in 2013 and 2014. It is now planning other tall buildings with up to 20 storeys. The advantages are considerable. The individual modules are completely pre-fabricated in a factory in low-cost, forest-rich northern Sweden. This saves on the time-consuming erection of expensive production infrastructure on the building site. Folkhem only needs seven months to complete these buildings: a comparable traditional structure would take almost two years to erect. What’s more timber structures are ecological: wood stores CO2 instead of releasing it into the air.
Wood is also on the up in other places: Europe’s first multi-storey building comprising seven storey constructed from a mixture of timber and concrete was completed in Berlin in 2008. A 14-storey luxury apartment block, the Treet, is currently being built in Bergen in Norway and a 24-storey timber-framed building is due for completion in Vienna in 2018. The LifeCycle Tower, an eight-storey building in Dornbirn in Austria is also constructed in wood and concrete. Architect Michael Green is planning the biggest timber-framed structure to be built up to now in Canada: the 30-storey structure in glued laminated wood will be erected in Vancouver.
Algae can replace plastic
While the tradition of building in wood is a long-standing one throughout the world, new materials are also being developed from natural substances. A team of Japanese designers, all graduates of the Tama Art University in Tokyo, have developed packaging material from biologically degradable algal products. Agar, which is used as a vegan substitute for gelatine, could replace environmentally harmful foam and plastic films in the packaging industry. It has a porous, almost feather-like structure and is very light compared to its volume, which makes it ideal for padding. A solid, film-like structure can be achieved through compression. The initial testing of the ecological material was successful: a bottle protected by agar padding was transported from Japan to Italy undamaged. The main advantage of agar packaging is that it is completely biodegradable.
Biochar removes CO2 from the air
Traditional raw materials can also be produced using innovative new methods. This is demonstrated by a project implemented jointly by the United Nations’ industrial development organization UNIDO, the "ökozentrum" and several Swiss federal agencies in Vietnam where coffee beans are often dried using wood fires. This method is expensive and bad for the environment. A technology developed in Switzerland enables the beans to be dried in a clean and even climate-positive way. Previously unexploited biowaste can be converted into biochar and gas through pyrolysis. The gas is used as a heating source for drying the beans and the biochar can be used as a natural fertiliser or sold on the local market. The process is stable, reliable and suitable for use in many locations across the globe.
Chocolate from sustainable raw materials
Many companies are also committed to sustainability. For example, a major concern of Barry Callebaut, one of the biggest chocolate producers in the world, is securing the access to raw materials. The company, which is based in Zurich, is committed to ecological and social sustainability and to ensuring its long-term economic success. For this reason, it has set itself the aim of producing all of the ingredients for its chocolate products sustainably by 2025: that is milk products, sugar, hazel nuts, vanilla, cocoa. However, the company is also interested in the conservation of the natural environment beyond the cocoa plantations, and aims to make a net contribution to reafforestation – also by 2025: forests were often cleared in the past to make space for cocoa bushes. Sustainability should also be of benefit to humans, so the company also aims to help a half a million cocoa farmers to exceed the poverty line, defined by the UN defines as an income of USD 1.9 per day.
Improving the lives of millions of people
While Barry Callebaut mainly acts as a supplier to other companies, Unilever is one of the world’s biggest producers of consumer goods. The Dutch-British giant, whose brands include Dove, Knorr, Lipton, Omo and Rexona, is also committed to sustainability. Unilever passed its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 under its then new CEO Paul Polman – the Dutch businessman had recently moved to the company from Nestlé. With this plan the company set itself three goals: first, it aims to enable a billion people to improve their health by 2020, an objective that includes ensuring access to clean water and healthy food; second, it wants to improve the living conditions of millions of people who depend on Unilever, directly or indirectly, through measures such as the fair payment of agricultural suppliers in developing countries and the creation of career opportunities for women; and, third, Unilever proposes to halve its ecological footprint by 2030 compared to its 2010 footprint. This aim covers measures ranging from the reduction of the company’s CO2 emissions and the increasing of the proportion of sustainably produced raw materials used to the implementation of elements of the circular economy. For example, working in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Germany, Unilever developed a technology that enables the re-use of plastic bags. The company aims to make all of the plastic bags it uses fully recyclable and compostable by 2025.
Sustainability on trend
Stella McCartney shows that sustainability can also be on trend. The daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney launched her own fashion label in 2001. As a vegetarian she aimed to avoid the use of leather and fur. The French luxury goods concern Kering Group, which owns other major brands like Brioni, Gucci and Puma, got on board with her label from the outset. In 2013, Stella McCartney went one step further and started to measure and reduce her brand’s ecological footprint. She was able to present the first ecological report in 2015, according to which the footprint for each kilogramme of clothing produced by her company had fallen by 35 percent from 2014. Despite this, the label recorded two-digit growth in 2015 – sustainability clearly pays when it is on trend from the consumer’s perspective. However, a major proportion of the ecological footprint arises outside the label’s actual area of activity, that is in its suppliers’ footprints. Hence it is very important for a company to know its suppliers and to increase their awareness of the sustainability of their processes.
Marketplace for green technologies
This is one of the major challenges facing the green economy: for it to be effective, many actors throughout the relevant value-added chains must cooperate – and, moreover, at global level. This is precisely where WIPO Green comes into play. A programme of the World Intellectual Property Organization, which is based in Geneva, WIPO Green provides a global marketplace for sustainable technologies on which the developers of such technologies can offer them for sale. The programme connects the developers with companies or individuals and authorities that use such technologies or would like to develop them further. The network now incorporates around 5,000 suppliers and users in around 50 different countries, and in 2016 users offered their solutions around 2,400 times through WIPO Green. The innovation platform “connects providers of innovative green technologies with potential users, particularly in developing countries. It leverages an extensive innovation network connecting needs with solutions as well as networks with networks,” says Anatole Krattiger, Director of the Global Challenges Division at the WIPO. “And networking begins at home. Twelve out of 81 WIPO GREEN Partners are based in Switzerland – perhaps a expression of the fact that Switzerland consistently leads the WIPO Global Innovation Index,” he adds.
The technologies offered on the WIPO GREEN marketplace include, for example, a process for extracting fertiliser from urine developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (eawag). Researchers from Dublin City University developed a processes for improving the measurement of the colour and turbidity of fluids. And scientists from Purdue University in the American state of Indiana developed a biological air filtration system which removes allergens and other things from the air in residential space. It cleans the air by passing it through a ‘biowall’ consisting of plants and roots.
The economy will only become sustainable as a result of many individual initiatives and through the participation of consumers. For example, there has been a trend in North America and western Europe for some time now to sell food again in an unpackaged form. This is intended as a measure to reduce waste, and it is also being introduced in Switzerland. Around a dozen shops all over Switzerland, including the Basel unverpackt cooperative, Unverpackt Luzern in Lucerne, Chez Mamie in Sion, bare Ware in Winterthur and Bachsermärt in Zurich, now offer packaging-free shopping.