The Bio Revolution:

How Decarbonization Can Succeed without Deindustrialization

At the end of the 19th century, visionaries like Carl Duisberg discovered that there was much more to tar chemistry than just synthetic dyes. Organic chemistry was starting to revolutionize our lives, with the introduction of new materials, medicines and fertilizers. One might compare these discoveries to the digital transformation, and the new factories that sprang up in places like Leverkusen and Ludwigshafen might be compared to today’s Silicon Valley.

There’s no denying the negative effects of petroleum and natural gas-based chemical products on the climate and biodiversity, and I certainly don’t want to ignore the barbaric use of these products in the two World Wars. At the same time, it is important to recognize the enormous contribution of the innovations achieved during this period – particularly the Haber-Bosch process – to life expectancy. They have made it possible for nearly eight billion people to live on this planet, relatively free of conflict.

 

Up to the present day, Germany owes its prosperity not only to the automobile industry, but above all to its leadership as an innovator at the beginning of this chemical revolution. Where that leadership comes from is obvious: During the first three decades of the 20th century, half of all Nobel Prizes in chemistry were awarded to German scientists.

 

We recognize, however, that a growing and increasingly prosperous world population is exceeding the limits of our planet. Until about 50 years ago, we were living as if the Earth were capable of regenerating the resources we were consuming. Today we are using the equivalent of about 1.6 Earths every year. We are witnessing the third mass extinction of species, and are about to catapult ourselves out of our planetary comfort zone. People are suffering from extreme weather events and fleeing homelands that have become uninhabitable. 

 

Up to the present day, Germany owes its prosperity not only to the automobile industry, but above all to its leadership as an innovator at the beginning of this chemical revolution. Where that leadership comes from is obvious: During the first three decades of the 20th century, half of all Nobel Prizes in chemistry were awarded to German scientists. 

 

We recognize, however, that a growing and increasingly prosperous world population is exceeding the limits of our planet. Until about 50 years ago, we were living as if the Earth were capable of regenerating the resources we were consuming. Today we are using the equivalent of about 1.6 Earths every year. We are witnessing the third mass extinction of species, and are about to catapult ourselves out of our planetary comfort zone. People are suffering from extreme weather events and fleeing homelands that have become uninhabitable. 

 

India, soon to be the world’s most populous country, is at risk of social destabilization caused by heat waves and water shortages. Scientists agree that this path is unsustainable. While not all negative impacts of climate change can be prevented, I am convinced that we still have a chance to take effective countermeasures in my lifetime. At the end of this historic year, I am more optimistic than pessimistic – for four reasons: First, the European Union, Japan and the People’s Republic of China have committed themselves to decarbonizing their economies. With the election of Joe Biden, it is more likely that the United States, too, will focus on the need to protect the climate. The U.S., Europe, Japan and China will be able to convince the other major economies in the G20, most importantly India and Brazil, that this is the right path.

 

Tragically, 2020 Has Shown That a Sustainability Strategy Based on Reduced Consumption Is Doomed to Failure. 

 

A second important factor is social participation. I welcome the fact that the global climate movements supported by my children’s generation are basing their demands on scientific insights. But we mustn’t ignore the results of the large-scale, global experiment in reducing consumption that we have experienced this year. Pandemic-related restrictions have caused a slight decline in emissions, but they have also reduced the level of disposable income, drastically increased food insecurity and, even in wealthy countries, led to a mountain of debt, which is limiting room for investment. The selection of the United Nations World Food Program to receive the Nobel Peace Prize has called attention to one consequence of this global experiment in reduced consumption: Another 130 million people are starving. A sustainability strategy based on lowering consumption will fail for two reasons: It will not gain the support of a majority of the public, and it will not lead to sufficient environmental improvements. Autocratic governments would be the only ones capable of implementing such a strategy, and no one should favor that option.

 

Genome Editing: The Printing Press of Our Time 

 

What we need is innovation. The truly radical innovation of our time is the Bio Revolution. Historically, we have come full circle. Eight of the last ten Nobel Prizes in chemistry have been awarded for discoveries in the world of genes and proteins, where the line between biology and artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly blurred. The highlight, so far, was the Nobel Prize awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier in recognition of their development of a method for genome editing – the printing press of our time. Europe must fully support the Bio Revolution. Otherwise, our continent could suffer the fate of the Osman Empire in the 16th century, when it banned book printing on pain of death – with devastating consequences for what was, at the time, the scientific center of the world. If we want to prevent decarbonization from leading to deindustrialization, particularly in Germany we need to concentrate on innovation clusters – that is, on key fields of research that affect many other areas. In the pharmaceutical industry and agriculture, we may be at the center of successful disruption. COVID-19 has provided clear evidence of the importance of innovation in biotechnology. In the race to develop a vaccine, top German tech companies are among the most promising candidates.

 

The Market’s Invisible Hand Is Becoming a Fist

 

The fourth factor is the economy itself. The good news is that banks, insurance companies and investors began long ago to integrate climate-related risks into their strategies. The invisible hand of the market is becoming green. It will turn into a fist and strike against those who resist decarbonization. To reset the course efficiently, companies must set quantitative sustainability goals that can be reviewed by external authorities, and these goals must be reflected in compensation. Bayer did this last year. 

 

We can usher in a new era if governments, society, innovators and companies work together. Renewable energy sources provide a successful example. Here, too, of course, progress has not been without controversy. Yet even in the United States we have seen renewables surpassing coal in 2020 – for the first time since 1885, and despite continued political support for fossil fuels.

 

Instead of Fear of the Future, a Spirit of Innovation

 

We are all called upon to stop fearing the future and instead embrace innovation. We will be successful if we are guided by science and data, and if we have the courage to renounce populist, esoteric and romantic worldviews. From my perspective, at one of the centers of the Bio Revolution, I am increasingly optimistic that we can achieve this. If Germany is to remain one of the world’s leading countries 100 years from now, we need to focus on the innovation clusters of the biotech revolution.

 

Author

Matthias Berninger
Matthias Berninger
Head of Public Affairs & Sustainability of Bayer