Build back better: a healthy planet for healthy people and prosperity
The economic stimulus packages and recovery plans that the EU and national governments are now putting in place have the potential to create a recovery that is both green and inclusive. The European Green Deal, launched at the end of 2019, is a new growth strategy that aims to deliver the coherent policy framework to implement a more sustainable European economy, towards which a circular, sustainable Bioeconomy can have a significant and increasing contribution to make.
The EU bioeconomy represents industries that use renewable biological resources from crops, forests, animals and microorganisms to produce food/feed, chemical compounds, materials and energy. Within the EU-27, the bioeconomy sector already constitutes a significant share of the overall economy, with 8.2% of the work force and generating revenue of approximately €700 billion (5% of GDP).
However, to date much of the bioeconomy impact resides within what might be considered the more traditional sector (e.g. paper, wood textiles). The more modern bioeconomy (biomass feedstock for production of bioplastics, bio-based chemicals and biofuels) has met with a number of challenges towards fulfilling its potential to provide “green” alternatives to fossil-based production and consumption. Not least of course is that of cost-competitiveness versus their fossil-derived counterparts. A major obstacle for the commercial development of the bioeconomy has been the high capital investment costs associated with scaling up the latest innovations and installation of the required advanced biorefinery infrastructure. In Europe, the Commission and the Bio-based Industry Consortium (BIC), within the BBI JU public private partnership, have been seeking to leverage industry funding and de-risk the required investment by setting up a number of EU demonstration and flagship projects comprising large scale and near-commercial activity.
One such example is
the Pomacle-Bazancourt biorefinery (Marne), the largest in Europe, brings together researchers, farmers and manufacturers; it directly employs more than 1,200 people, generates three to four times more indirect jobs and transforms 4 million tonnes of biomass per year into sugar, glucose, starch, food or pharmaceutical alcohol, cosmetic active ingredients, etc., for further processing into environmentally responsible industrial products.
Also, the Pulp2Value BBI project led by Royal COSUN in the Netherlands seeking valorisation of the 13 million tonnes of sugarbeet pulp currently available in Europe. This by-product is currently used for low-value animal feed and/or biogas, and the project has successfully demonstrated a biorefinery process for production of added value bio-based chemicals for use in the personal care, detergent and composite sectors.
The COVID-19 pandemic ironically presents the bioeconomy with new opportunities to exploit some inherent strengths and assume a heightened position in the new world order. This relates to the widespread recognition that the Recovery is predicated on a sustainable transition – NOT business as usual – while also incorporating a more regional dimension.
While the bioeconomy can play a major role in meeting the global sustainability agenda, in itself, one can’t always assume, particularly in the past, total compliance. We’ve had the food versus fuel debate and other concerns relating to a limited biomass supply servicing the global material and energy demands. However, there has been a recent recalibration towards a more heightened sustainability focus as evidenced by the updated EU Bioeconomy Strategy Action Plan (2018) which aims for deployment within safe ecological limits and to maximise its contribution towards the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The emphasis is on a systemic approach covering the three dimensions of sustainability incorporating economy, social and environment. While market aspects and traditional economic value will continue to be one component of decision making, it may not always be the dominant one in the context of a transformative bioeconomy. Competition between the non-renewable economy and the renewable one (including the bioeconomy) needs to integrate at least a strong carbon signal and ecological sensitivity. Such a move can be hopefully driven by a combination of consumer demand, increasing corporate social responsivity and an appropriately adjusted EU policy intervention system.
Finally, post-COVID, an increasing trend towards regionalisation is expected, with ongoing efforts to establish a web of interconnected EU regional bioeconomies helping offset many of the issues heightened by the pandemic – short supply chains, local feedstocks and increased demand for locally produced goods. This can result in a geographic redistribution of jobs and a re-emergence of vibrant and diversified regional communities. To conclude, the bioeconomy, and specifically its focus on sustainability, can ultimately help sustain economies and societies that operate in harmony with the natural systems they depend on. It is set to play an integral part in “building back better” in the post-COVID-19 EU Recovery Plan.