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Coming of the Green Industrial Revolution

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Over the past 200 years human civilization has experienced the most remarkable period in its history, an era of unprecedented economic, technological, scientific and societal advances, all powered by our deep-rooted addiction to oil and other fossil fuels.

But resource scarcity, climate change, population growth and increased consumption is leading this golden age of growth and discovery towards its endgame. The long-term viability of our fossil fuel-based economic models and societies has been fundamentally undermined. Recent developments in the Gulf of Mexico remind us that the use of fossil fuels brings with it the ever present threat of environmental catastrophe.

There is nothing new about this analysis. We are all familiar with the arguments. They have provided the backdrop for over two decades of climate change negotiations and led to resurgence in renewable power generation.

I would argue, however, that while we understand the problems we face, we're only starting to come to terms with their implications, never mind the need for a solution.

The logic for a transition away from a fossil carbon-based economy is glaringly obvious. Fossil fuels are finite, yet demand for them is increasing. The use of fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases and compounds the problem of climate change. To wean us off our addiction to fossil carbon sources, we need a more sustainable resource, and I believe that alternative is biomass - biological materials that can be used for industrial production, transportation, heat and electricity.

Biomass, in essence the only renewable carbon source, will be a key resource that will fuel the development of a bio-based economy and will usher in a green industrial revolution. There are many opportunities that the bio-based economy presents as well as many challenges. To address these issues, we need to start a constructive and inclusive debate amongst industry, governments and civil society.

The bio-based economy as a concept has little resonance outside of specialist circles and it is largely peripheral to current discussions about how to address the fundamental sustainability issues addressed above. This needs to change.

In terms of technology, for example, conversations tend to be dominated by renewable energy: wind, solar and, of course biofuels. It's now time to move this discussion forward, by thinking about our future in a more holistic fashion, about how exactly we will combine these elements together so we can once again 'live off the land'.

Look at our business, chemicals, for example. Very few people outside the industry understand the level of dependence there is currently on fossil carbon sources. Fossil carbon-based chemicals are quite literally the building blocks for modern society - they accounted for 94% of all chemical industry revenue in 2007. Virtually every manufactured product in the world contains or is made using fossil carbon sources. They are even being used to manufacture the renewable energy solar panels and wind turbines and are blended with ethanol to make biofuel.

We are at the beginning stages of the development of a green industrial landscape that has the power to transform our modern economy into a more sustainable economy. As a company, we are very confident about the potential of the bio-based economy to mass produce bio-chemicals and biomaterials - as we are already producing them - but we don't kid ourselves that they are a panacea. We know that there are massive issues and challenges to face in accelerating their development and uptake, not least issues surrounding land use, the food chain and biodiversity.

But these problems can and will be overcome, because they have to. The Stern Report in 2008, which, for the first time, brought a sharp economic focus to the problem of climate change, indicates that there is a clear economic value to the bio-based economy, not to mention the ruinous cost to the world of continuing down our 'Business as Usual' path - 5% to 20% decline in global GDP per year according to the Stern Report.

Slowly, as stakeholders, we are starting to speak the same language: governments, aware of the destructive danger of Business as Usual, are taking a more constructive role towards creating the infrastructure, regulation and incentives to help a bio-based economy take root. Businesses are doing what businesses do best and starting to see opportunities in the new economic system: there is, after all, nothing wrong with making a profit, so long as you 'do well by doing good'. And NGOs and private citizens continue to play a vital, constructive role in the bio-based economy by helping industry and governments develop sustainable models for the bio-based economy that does not put even more stress on our environment.

The bio-based economy gives us the opportunity to match sustainability with economic growth but we must learn from the past and avoid the pitfalls of our current industrial model.

We're not there yet, but I have no doubt that we have the tools available to avert our looming environmental, economic and social crises. Technology got us to where we are today and it will be technology - provided it can count on the support of all stakeholders - that will take us to our next stage of economic evolution.

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