Climate and the renewing of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy

9.2.2018

The bioeconomy is often viewed as a more sustainable form of economy, as it is based on renewable resources, and is connected to most UN Sustainable Development Goals. The matter is not quite straightforward, however. The EU Bioeconomy Strategy is now facing revision. In the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), we conducted a study for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on EU level policies relating to the bioeconomy, focusing on climate issues.

The bioeconomy is connected to very many sectors. Energy- and climate package is largely relevant for the bioeconomy but, for example, construction and textiles are sectors where the possibilities of bioeconomy are not yet acknowledged in the EU policies. Revising the Bioeconomy Strategy, expanding its focus, and improving coherence between sectors are therefore necessary. The current Bioeconomy Strategy focuses too much on materials rather than services, not to mention ecosystem services.

The bioeconomy can offer solutions to the carbon issue in three ways. First, the biomass-producing sectors can upkeep and increase carbon sinks. Post-2020 agriculture policy (CAP) is likely to emphasise this function. Second, bio-based products having a long lifetime, such as wooden buildings, may constitute carbon sinks. The cascade principle, waste prevention and sector specific regulations are relevant. Third, bio-based products may substitute non-renewable products, e.g., in chemical industry, packaging, and energy. Public procurement, product standards and sectoral policies may be harnessed to increase their markets. It must be ensured that the bio-based products have (significantly) lower GHG emissions over their life-cycle. Sustainability criteria are not only needed in the energy sector. It is also vital that the use of bio-based products implements substitution rather than additional production and consumption.

There are trade-offs between the ways in which the bioeconomy can contribute to the climate challenge. Competing uses for biomass as well as the competition between sinks and harvests are inbuilt conflicts in the bioeconomy.

Growing and harvesting biomass is also connected to biodiversity protection. The biodiversity is necessary for the bioeconomy. This is often forgotten in the midst of material needs. Although the public discussion in Finland has focused on forestry, increasing soil carbon sinks is also important. The diversity of soil organisms is particularly significant in this.

It is necessary to move from the focus from the bioeconomy to the circular bioeconomy, meaning that the material and energy efficiency as well as cascade use and recycling need to be taken seriously. It must also be understood that even then, there are not sufficient biological resources to replace all currently used fossil and other non-renewable resources. It is therefore necessary to reduce the material flows in the economy. As an internationally wealthy region, the EU should also gradually reach a situation where its sinks are larger than its greenhouse gas emissions. The Bioeconomy Strategy focuses still on increasing economic growth and employment. It needs to also tackle the difficult questions lifestyles, economic structures and consumption.

The author Vilja Varho is a senior scientist in Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke).

Contact: email vilja.varho@luke.fi, tel. 029 532 6039