5 February 2024 | Category: Circular & Climate-neutral

Community Day – Towards a Circular and Climate-Neutral Society

By Fred Beekmans

Programme Leader Circular & Climate-neutral Society...

This is the first blog in a blog series on ‘Circular & Climate-neutral’. This research programme (KB-34) focuses on research that contributes simultaneously to circular and climate-positive food and non-food production systems. This introduction to the series is by Fred Beekmans, Programme Leader for the Circular & Climate-Neutral Society research programme.

It’s 8.30 on 28 November 2023. I’m at the WICC in Wageningen, waiting for the first of the 100 or so colleagues who are expected to attend the Community Day for the Knowledge Base programme ‘Towards a Circular and Climate-Neutral Society’.

Our colleagues Frank van Weert and Esther Koopmanschap have helped us prepare the programme for the day. We’ve made a particular effort to ensure that the programme would appeal to the wide range of people employed at the various Wageningen Research institutes. An important question for me personally is: will there be any outcomes that I can apply to the future of the research programme?

Ten months earlier, I’d taken up the role of programme leader for a programme that covers many different aspects of circularity and the climate, making it very broad. Today, for the first time, I will be briefly telling the story in my own words, based on my own interpretation. This introduction will be supplemented by some very interesting and forward-looking presentations by my colleagues, along with a contribution from the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, all of which will provide the foundation for a workshop. During the workshop, colleagues from different institutes will be discussing what the future will look like if their particular technology, model, working method, etc turns out to be a breakthrough.

No simple solutions

I’m impressed with the feedback that comes out of the workshop. Many of our colleagues are very positive about the approach we’ve taken. And almost half of the attendees completed the online form to share their thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the feedback is as wide-ranging as the programme itself, and reflects the diverse backgrounds of the attendees. I now have an even better understanding of why Saskia Visser, my predecessor, persistently talked about “developing building blocks to achieve a circular and climate-neutral society”. After all, there are no simple solutions to complex challenges.

It’s very positive to see that we have a shared vision of how we can use the tools at our disposal to make the world a better place, one step at a time. That was one of the reasons I returned to WUR after 17 years. Everyone is committed to playing a part in restoring the balance between our economy and ecology. With its focus on climate neutrality, our research is geared towards reducing or halting emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane within the agri-food system, and changing our current petroleum-based system of production for raw materials to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

Circularity is a means to this end, but is also an end in itself to ensure we stay within planetary boundaries. We’re doing this by closing the loop for water, nutrients and carbon cycles. What that means is reducing losses within production chains, and seeing waste streams as by-products that can be safely reused rather than discarded. This more resource-efficient approach will enable us to cut down on the extraction of primary raw materials from the earth, and to achieve greater agricultural yields from the same amount of land.

The need for a transdisciplinary approach

Feedback on how we turn this vision into reality often mentions the need for a transdisciplinary approach, bringing together technological, ecological and socio-economic solutions so that we can actually achieve the transitions. It’s also important to take a multi-stakeholder approach, one that is both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’. And the different scales – from the European/national level to the farm level – are also key to linking ambitions to implementation.

Ecological and technological developments are emerging in the primary production sector, such as climate-smart, nature-inclusive, regenerative agriculture, circular greenhouses and fully closed systems. There are also specific regional challenges such as those seen in peatlands and areas of increasing salinisation. Meanwhile, new production methods are also in the spotlight, involving seafood, proteins, fungi, insects and fermentation.

The energy transition is an important part of our move towards a fossil-free world, but so too is the commodity transition to bio-based raw materials. For all these developments, it’s also important to look at supply chains, including any newly interconnected ones. These should be based on a good match between what the market and industry demand and what is being supplied, both regionally and internationally.

The broad Knowledge Base programme includes a variety of projects that cumulatively provide the building blocks for a transition to a circular and climate-neutral society. These projects mainly focus on closing the loop for water, nutrient and carbon cycles.

Barriers and learning points

Transitions do not happen by themselves. Many barriers were mentioned by the participants, including the lack of urgency, entrenched relationships, power balances in the supply chain, and the lack of a common language, vision and priorities. That’s another reason why there is strong focus within the programme on managing transitions. To this end, we’re working with stakeholders in regional projects – mostly through ‘Living Labs’ – on a small, regional scale to bring about the necessary technological, ecological and socio-economic changes.

A key learning point is that complex issues cannot be solved by simplifying them. Stakeholders will therefore need to work together to come up with solutions.

It’s very important that the choices we make – about where we grow a particular crop and why, how the raw materials are used and where they’re applied – are based on the right trade-offs, both regionally and in an international context. It’s essential that businesses and governments collect the right data and create monitoring tools, dashboards and decision support tools so they can track and adjust the progress of transitions. An important part of the programme is therefore the deployment of various models which can enable us to estimate and scale up the consequences of particular interventions from individual plots right up to the national and international scale.

The donut economy and other economic models

The question is whether the necessary transitions to a circular and climate-neutral society can be achieved within the current economic system, which is based on a linear system. That’s why we have a team exploring alternative economic models, such as the ‘donut economy’, which may be better suited to the new biobased economy.

As I reflect on this excellent, interesting and interactive day, I can say that as well as providing an update on the ongoing programme, it has given me a wealth of ideas for future strategic research paths. I would therefore like to thank the participants for their open mindset and their contributions to the success of the KB34 Community Day.

Read more:

More detailed information on the Knowledge Base programme ‘Towards a Circular and Climate-Neutral Society’ and its projects can be found on the following websites:

By Fred Beekmans

Programme Leader Circular & Climate-neutral Society

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