Extracting sugar cane juice in Colombia
Guillermo León Montoya

-OpEd-

BOGOTA — As unlikely as it may sound, many of the countries we closely associate with planning and foresight are turning their attention to Colombia for inspiration on how to address the parallel problems of industry pollution, energy production and food security.

The South American country boasts enviable geographical and climatic conditions, exceptional biodiversity and above all, a varied and preponderant farming sector. Together these factors are sparking talk about what some call the "new economy" or "bioeconomy."

This new way of looking at economic growth may help rectify the serious environmental harm done by the excesses of the industrial revolution model, which has turned the planet into a trash heap of oil-derived products like plastics. These materials — used for everything from food and drink packaging to chairs, baskets, vehicle parts, pesticides, paint, detergents, solvents, tires and other items — will take hundreds, even thousands of years to disappear through biodegradation.

The derivatives have one more drawback, namely that oil is finite and could run out within decades. And yet our governments seem to be ignoring this scenario. They're also failing to plan for sustainable economies to better care for our most precious asset: the environment we live in.

The real irony here is that our mistreated planet is already providing the best option to ensure food security, clean energy and even the chemical products we most commonly use. The answer, if we choose to see it, is right in front of us: plants.

Collecting bagasse waste in a sugar cane processing factory — Photo: RHaworth/GFDL

We owe our lives to these incredible organisms, which are already produced and harvested efficiently. The only thing missing is to make better use of them. Imagine if all of the aforementioned products were made not with plastics, but with recycled and biodegradable material that could be reincorporated into biological processes. We’d have what is known as a circular economy of products, a sustainable cycle.

Colombia is in a privileged position to contribute to this new economy because of the specific crops its produces: bananas, sugar cane, rice, African palm, rubber, coffee, cocoa, potatoes, corn and sorghum. Sugar cane, for example, provides the white sugar people use for cookies, candies and just about every other prepared food product. But it also produces a waste byproduct called bagasse, which can be used to make paper, processed to make alcohol fuel, or burned to run generators. Imagine if we took the same approach with all the other crops?

Until recently, few firms ventured in this direction. But today, companies such as Green Biologics, Beta-Renewables, Avantium, Genomatica, Biocycle and the Colombian firm Sucroal are indicative of an evolving outlook in the business world, and acting as possible precursors of a world freed of dependence on fossil fuels. If you have a business in Colombia, it might be time to discard the past and step forward into the bioeconomy.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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