The EU Green Deal is one of the most transformative European political initiatives in recent decades. In the words of the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, the Green Deal ’is a new growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050.’
Such a great vision cannot be delivered without looking at the essence of our economic model. The quantity-oriented, profit-driven economy should be replaced by an economy focusing on delivering people’s needs in a sustainable way.
This is not an easy task. It certainly challenges the current balance and distribution of power and interests. But it is a necessary one, if we are serious about the ambitions that we have set.
The task cannot be articulated through separate policies as currently presented. Circular economy based on renewable biological resources and sustainable biobased solutions, that is, bioeconomy, could the catalyst for systemic change.
Inclusive and fair prosperity needs bioeconomy
There are three features of bioeconomy to connect the dots in the Green Deal. The first one is this: bioeconomy is fundamental for inclusive prosperity and fair social transition.
This is paradoxically related to one of the theoretical disadvantages of the bioeconomy when compared to the fossil-based economy: a more complex ownership, mobilization and processing of resources. Biological resources like forest resources are usually owned by many more people and entities, their costs are often higher and transporting and processing biomass tend to be more costly and complex compared to fossil resources.
However, at the same time, this is a great advantage, as it offers the possibility of a more inclusive distribution of income, jobs, infrastructures and prosperity, especially in rural areas, in line with the Green Deal’s inclusive growth ambitions.
Just as an example, forests cover more than 40% of the EU land surface, an area without too may job opportunities, with the exception of bioeconomy.
The forest-based sector, which is not mentioned at all in the Green Deal, provides 3.5 million jobs. This is many more than the energy-intensive steel, chemicals and cement industries, which the Green Deal calls indispensable to Europe’s economy.
In addition, the EU forest-based sector also includes 400,000 small and medium scale enterprises and 16 million forest owners: an extensive and unique socio-ecological “fabric” to put forward the Green Deal ambitions.
Circular bioresources replace fossils
Secondly, moving towards a carbon neutral EU does not only require moving towards fossil free energy, but also to fossil free materials, and to replace carbon intense products like plastics, concrete, steel and other materials like synthetic textiles.
This is not only because of climate change mitigation, but also because of other positive environmental impacts. The transformation called for in the Green Deal is simply not possible without using a new range of renewable biobased materials.
This shift is also an opportunity to make industries more circular: renewable biological resources, like forest resources, are circular by nature and often easier to remanufacture. While the Green Deal identifies several sectors like chemicals, textiles, plastics or construction, which need new conceptual business models and innovations to become circular and low carbon industries, bioeconomy as such meets these demands.
Here, the emerging bioeconomy can be a catalyst. Already now we are able to transform wood into a new revolutionary material called nanocellulose: five times stronger than steel but also five times lighter.
The first car made of nanocellulose was unveiled last year in Japan. A new generation of sustainable and circular wood-based textiles with a five times lower carbon footprint than its competitors is now possible, too.
Wood engineering products are the most effective way to reduce the carbon footprint in cities and the construction sector, currently dominated by two carbon-intense and resource-intense materials: concrete and steel.
Bioeconomy place nature at the center
Thirdly, the bioeconomy offers a great opportunity to address the past failure of the economy to value nature and biodiversity. The reason is that sustainable bioeconomy needs to place nature and life at the center.
Biodiversity determines the capacity of biological resources. It is therefore a prerequisite for a long-term, sustainable and resilient bioeconomy.
On the other hand, a sustainable bioeconomy is needed in the long term to protect biodiversity. This is because bioeconomy is crucial to mitigate climate change – biodiversity’s main threat.
In addition, certain measures can simultaneously benefit biodiversity and the bioeconomy, such as promoting more resilient mixed forests or addressing natural disturbances in certain cases and scales.
Finally, it is unrealistic to assume that actions to protect or enhance biodiversity should be funded only by public money. Forest owners and forest industry would be in a better position to reinvest in biodiversity and natural capital, in line with the aims of the Green Deal.
Bioeconomy restores dichotomies of 20th century
Sustainable bioeconomy, powered by nature, has major potential to help deliver the ambitions set by the Green Deal. It is an important missing piece of the complicated puzzle to overcome the past dichotomy between economy and ecology that very much defined the 20th century.
Bioeconomy provides us with the opportunity to build a new and synergistic relationship between technology and nature, between ecology and economy. It is able to define the 21st century as the century where we would finally start respecting the laws of physics and integrating biology into the economy.
The article was originally published on the European Forest Institute’s website.
Leading the way to a European circular bioeconomy strategy, From Science to Policy 5, European Forest Institute