Renewability does not guarantee sustainability

5.9.2014 / Article

Bioeconomy strategies should answer the questions what will be done, and how and why, says Eeva Hellström. Renewable materials can be used unsustainably, too.

Finland, as many other OECD countries, has developed a national bioeconomy strategy. The European Union also has one.

But what is bioeconomy? Some say it is just a new name for old industries.

Ms. Eeva Hellström, Senior Lead in Strategy at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, can see where this criticism comes from. “Bioeconomy is often seen as the production and use of biomass, when it really should be seen as a way of doing things, with a specific goal,” Hellström says.

In Europe, people talk about bioeconomy, while in Asia the term is green economy. Hellström says the latter is a more comprehensive term.

According to her, we should really talk about sustainable economy, which our current one is not, at least in the global perspective: social inequality is increasing, natural resources are diminishing; in places, industrialization is a direct threat to people’s health.

The baseline is to find solutions to problems

Bioeconomy is approached from different viewpoints. Hellström says the motivation behind supranational strategies is the will to solve the huge problems faced by humankind due to population growth, climate change and diminishing natural resources.

These problems can be sorted out with the help of bioeconomy.

National bioeconomy strategies recognize these global problems, but they are still largely based on national perspectives, or sometimes even on the perspectives of just a few industries. Typical goals include increasing the use of biomass and creating new value added and jobs in the national economy.

Ideally, these different viewpoints coincide. Famine and food spoilage are both serious problems. Better packaging can have a positive impact on both problems, and also on the environmental effects of agriculture.

Renewability does not equal sustainability

Often, national strategies assume that bioeconomy is inherently sustainable and not enough care is taken to ensure that this is so. “The difference is whether sustainability is seen as a precondition to be met or as a goal to work towards with new business solutions and products,” Hellström says.

The fact that a raw material is renewable is no measure for the sustainability of bioeconomy. Fisheries are a good example of this. Fish are a renewable resource, but overfishing destroys sustainability.

Then again, catching rough fish to produce renewable energy and to improve the condition of the water could be sustainable bioeconomy.

Certification is used to prove the sustainability of silviculture. However, the ultimate use of the wood harvested has an impact on sustainability. If paper were to end up in a landfill directly after being used once, the use of forests would not be sustainable, no matter how high quality the silviculture is.

Circulation of material is essential

It is very difficult to define the sustainability of a raw material if its ways of use are taken into account. Hellström is not sure whether certification processes could be modified to achieve this, for example.

The crucial feature of bioeconomy is that raw materials circulate and ultimately revert to nature. The term used to describe this is closed circulation. How material reverts back to nature is actually not being discussed in Finland as yet.

The definition of renewable and non-renewable resources is quite black and white. Hellström thinks that the division will blur in the future. The recycling of critical metals is constantly improving, so that they are becoming closer to being renewable.

”And the problem with renewable resources is that we annually use 1.5 times as much as is produced. Some overfished species are becoming non-renewable,” Hellström says.

The situation in Finland is not that critical: the annual growth of trees keeps getting bigger than the annual use. Thus, bioeconomy is a real possibility.

Energy question needs answers

A major part of the energy used globally is produced from fossil fuels. Bioeconomy can only be of limited significance in solving the energy question, as there just is not enough biomass for a comprehensive solution.

The production of forest-based energy on a large scale can only be a transitional phase, even if it can offer sustainable solutions for energy production locally.

”Thanks to bioenergy, individual regions can become users of non-fossil energy, but globally, there just is not enough,” Hellström says.

And we must cease to use fossil fuels, or humankind will not survive. Hellström has seen indications that the oil industries have acknowledged this, too, for they are seeking cooperation with industries producing biochemicals.

There are still countries with a clear need to increase the use of energy. How to achieve this in a way that improves the state of the Earth, remains an unsolved problem.

Germany serves as example of challenges

There is not enough public debate in Finland about the potential of bioeconomy in solving global problems.

“We need bolder debate on the kind of world we want to build and how to use our natural resources to further that goal,” Hellström says.

Germany has decided to phase out the use of nuclear energy and coal and other non-renewable resources. To Hellström, this decision illustrates that it is possible to achieve a national resolution to make substantial changes.

On the other hand, Germany is a good example of how difficult it is to effect a real change. This does not mean it should not be attempted. Hellström thinks that the Finnish bioeconomy strategy does promote the building of a sustainable future in many ways.

Re-thinking environmental permits

Hellström would like to see debate on the functionality of environmental permits in Finland. The problem is that legislation views industrial activity as inherently harmful to the environment.

”Standards are necessary to prevent environmental damage. However, the permit process is remarkably heavy even for industrial activity that solves more environmental problems than it causes,” Hellström says.

In the case of several companies cooperating to improve the state of the environment, the permit process is even more complicated.

A good example is the investment planned by Metsä Fibre in Äänekoski, Finland. The bio mill would be surrounded by several companies functioning as a network, using each other’s products, by-products and waste as raw material.

Hellström says Äänekoski is an example of a situation where different actors try to solve the permit complexities in a way that would benefit all.

Krista Kimmo

Write a comment