Redoubtable and remarkable: Aida Greenbury talks with IndustryEdge

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Many of us know of Aida Greenbury from her thirteen years as Managing Director of sustainability at Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP). That included the period that was undoubtedly the most tumultuous in the forestry and paper giant’s history, as it faced global criticisms over its sustainability.

Through all that period and more, Aida headed the sustainability team of one of Asia’s largest land users. More than that, she was the prominent public face of APP, across the planet.

Aida, who was born and raised as a forester before joining the forestry-industry in early ‘90s, may have left APP in 2017, but if anything, her commitment to sustainability and the circularity of the global economy has become even more pointed.

So, we sat down with Aida Greenbury, and that’s where we started our discussion. 


Tim Woods – Aida, thanks for talking with us, in the lead up to the 2019 Appita Conference in Melbourne. I have been reading a lot of your recent work and posts and right up front, can you tell us what is driving you now that you aren’t with APP?

Aida Greenbury – The same thing that has been driving me for the last 25 years – ‘nothing is impossible in sustainability’. Sustainability is a funny word, it’s been over-used, often for PR purposes, but formally it has been defined as the ability to maintain healthy environmental, social and economic systems in balance, indefinitely, on a global and local scale.

Although there’s no single, universally acceptable definition of sustainability, in a nutshell, sustainability means lasting stability. The science on how to get there is evolving on a daily basis. I am learning something new every day. It’s exciting, challenging but it’s also our only means to survive as a global community in the climate emergency we are currently facing.


TW – So I see you are on the Advisory Boards of the World BioEconomy Forum and Mongabay now, in addition to some other positions. What else are you doing?

AG – I accepted the offer to sit as the Advisory Board member of the Finland-based World Bioeconomy Forum[1] because it was started by many familiar faces from the forestry, pulp and paper industry in Europe. We all have taken the journey in this industry together and then suddenly we stopped and looked at each other and said the same thing, that our industry is in the middle of major transition and innovation process, it’s like being reborn after we saw the light. Sustainable, circular bioeconomy, in particular forest bioeconomy is our future. Gone is the conservative way of looking at forests only as a fibre source.

In addition to this, I also advise Marubeni Corporation in their digital responsible supply-chain program; I advise the High Carbon Stock Approach[2], an initiative which has been globally recognized as a science-based tool to end deforestation in the tropics, to be adopted by governments and other key stakeholders; as soon as I left APP I joined the Board of Advisor of Mongabay[3], a global environmental reporting platform; and I also serve as the Senior Expert in the German Development Cooperation, among others.


TW – It is hard to escape your passion for sustainability and for economic change centred on bio-based economies. Where do you think that agenda is headed, and do you think we are moving in the right direction?

AG – Sustainability is the basis of circular bioeconomy, which is the integration of bio-based renewable resources and circular economy principles. It’s easily acceptable to stakeholders because it’s in line with the industry’s objectives of efficiency, cost reduction, innovation, and competitiveness. I think Europe is still leading the bioeconomy agenda with their focus on food security, moving away from fossil-based economy and unlocking the potential of oceans; with their three key action areas: to strengthen and scale-up the bio-based sectors, and unlock investments and markets; deploy local bioeconomies; and understand the ecological boundaries of the bioeconomy. I am observing their progress closely.

I believe we’re moving in the right direction, although we all need to better understand what our ecological boundaries are. Our roadmap toward sustainable circular bioeconomy needs to be guided by science-based limits such as the planetary boundaries to ensure that we do not make the same mistake of exhausting our natural resources, including deforestation of natural forests, and crossing these boundaries.  That’s why the word ‘sustainable’ needs to be attached to bioeconomy.


TW – Where are the biggest bio-economy opportunities going to lie, do you think?

AG – The forest bioeconomy in the tropics, without any doubt – 86% of the 500 billion tonnes of carbon stored in vegetation is in the tropics and sub-tropics. The tropics is also where biomass replenishes the quickest and where marine biomass, such as phytoplankton, is most productive. Tropical forests produce 40% more biomass per hectare than temperate and boreal forests. The tropics is currently under-researched for bioeconomy but based on what we know of the tropics’ biomass production and its biodiversity, it has huge opportunities to offer.  In addition to the obvious fibre, fuel and the wood’s chemical properties, tropical forests also offer ‘forest beyond timber’ such as non-timber forest products and its potential for the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.


TW – At a corporate level, where should we look for the best examples of what is possible? And while you are at it, is there any industry you would say provide the anti-example?

AG – First, I am most fascinated with the bio-based feedstock for plastic, as a replacement for fossil-fuel-based raw material. The US and Europe are leading with this technology, in particular the Europe-based forestry, pulp and paper industry players. Secondly, is how generation-Z are challenging accepted norms and coming up with new ideas and experiments. As an example, when he was 16, my son’s school project was on how to produce biodegradable plastic from corn starch. As important is how circular bioeconomy is being practiced in everyday life, from the use of methane from cow’s waste to generate electricity in the middle of the jungle in Sumatra to food-waste composting.

The biofuel industry is a good anti-example. I don’t believe that biomass burning for low value energy production is our future – we need to use clean energy sources instead.  In particular turning forests into pellets or liquid fuels makes no sense from a greenhouse gas emissions point of view, based on the carbon debt recovery time. However, several woody, crop and municipal waste streams can be used for grid-disconnected liquid biofuel such as aviation, but the main purpose of bioeconomy should be about substituting fossil-fuels.  

Even the use of biomass to produce single-use products including degradable bioplastics is being debated. In a sustainable circular bioeconomy reduce, reuse, repurposing and upcycling has precedence over recycling.


TW – What do you think the role of the pulp and paper sector will be in the future circular bioeconomy?

AG – Bright, as long as the sector is ready to invest – including through public-private-partnerships, to innovate and incorporate the climate crisis and planetary boundaries into the equation.


TW – We see chemical pulp demand for printing papers declining but expanding for production of cloth products like rayon. Is that the sort of opportunity the modern pulp and paper industry needs to look to, or is there a better example? 

AG – The future of our sustainable and circular bioeconomy is beyond just fashion industry. In addition to the environmental and social services of forests, the bioeconomy of a tree’s cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin products also covers the conversion of waste streams into food, feed, fibres, materials, chemicals and bioenergy.

I believe that the most value-added bioeconomy products from forestry, pulp and paper industry should be judged based on a clear set of indicators from the full supply chain, including products that benefit the global community, such as 1. forest conservation to mitigate climate change and to address the issues raised by the latest reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES); 2. bioplastic and other products to replace material from fossil-fuels;  3. medicines. Medicines are not yet fully explored in the forest bioeconomy industry.

I am pleased to read the first declaration by the World Bioeconomy Forum in September this year: “The bioeconomy is right at the heart of solutions to climate change. Through its strategy and actions, stakeholders must be committed to the bioeconomy with the knowledge that it is a crucial tool to mitigate climate change and to operate as such.”


TW – Our industries are very big land users, and as you have outlined, we can be key in the bio-economy or the circular economy if you like, in the future. But we need land for other purposes also. Sustainable food and agriculture, habitat for species other than humans and a variety of carbon, climate and other environmental needs. So, how should we make the decisions about what to grow where, and who do you think should decide?

AG – The World Resources International Ltd estimated that the total global area of plantation for the pulp industry in the 90s was already more than 41 million hectares. Indonesia alone allocated 10 million hectares of land for pulpwood plantations, although the developed area is currently only around 3.5 million hectares. In Indonesia in particular, the majority of the more fertile land is slated for food and agriculture production, not for pulpwood plantations. However, there can be an optimal use of land that maximises productivity, focuses on producing materials and land management that provides the most value to society including climate and biodiversity. There are tools and methodologies to achieve this, such as the High Carbon Stock Approach[4] for the tropics.  Obviously, there must be an immediate end to deforestation and protection of remaining intact forests but also restoration and reforestation if forests and forestry are to live up to their potential as a ‘Nature-Based Solution’.

Who should decide? We all should decide and influence the process as responsible stakeholders: the producers, the market, governments, academics, local communities and NGOs. Pulp and paper industry players are aware of the importance of transparency, from fibre composition, fibre origin, environmental and social footprint, to LCA. Public-private-partnership is key in bioeconomy, in order to implement transparency, to link between global strategy, government policies, industry players and other key stakeholders. We need a strong platform in Australia Pacific to support this, and Australia, as one of the established economies in the region, should lead it to ensure that the bioeconomy supply chain is responsible, transparent and sustainable.


TW – What makes you despair, and what are you excited about for the future?

AG – I despair with people who put their heads in the sand.

I despair with stakeholders who insist on continuing with their ‘Business as Usual’, who are afraid to change and refuse to listen to science.

I am excited by the sustainable circular bioeconomy, by the speed  that some players in the sector are completely rethinking the business model, by technology and how it can help us, by the role that the land sector can play as a solution to climate change if it does it well, and by the youth leading the way to changes we need to make.

I am excited by leadership from the unexpected – and I believe Australia with its vast lands, both tropical and subtropical as well as its diverse oceans, can be the leader in sustainable circular bioeconomy.


TW – Aida Greenbury, it has been a real pleasure talking with you, and I am looking forward to extending this conversation when you present at the Appita Conference in Melbourne.


This item was originally published in Edition 170 (November 2019) of Pulp & Paper Edge.






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