From food to clothes, transport fuels to building materials and plastics, we can build a huge amount of our economy around renewable, biodegradable plant materials, writes Xynteo’s Osvald Bjelland. But collaboration is key to ensuring we do it sustainably
Our current growth model has cashed in on the unbridled use of fossil fuels, setting off a carbon explosion that we now urgently need to contain – and we have just decades to do so. But our economy needs to be brought in line with this reality if any significant change is to be made. In other words, we need to transform our fossil-fuel reliant economy into a bio-economy. Quickly.
The bioeconomy already represents 10% of Europe’s economy, with annual turnover of €2.3tn. At present, the bulk of that value lies in food production, followed by forestry and fishing.
But the potential of the bioeconomy extends far wider. From the food we eat and the clothes we wear, to transport fuels, building materials, plastics, and chemicals, we can build a huge amount of our economy around renewable, biodegradable, sustainable organic matter – plants – rather than fossil fuels and non-renewable material.
Accelerating bioeconomy growth could drive €100bn into the EU economy by 2030 and provide 1 million new green jobs
By designing and making more bio-based goods, we can bring about long-term sustainability in manufacturing processes.
There is great potential for sustainable growth throughout the value chain of the bioeconomy: from feedstocks to biomaterials. Accelerating this growth could drive €100bn into the EU economy by 2030 and provide 1 million new green jobs, especially in neglected rural areas. And we have the space to make it a reality, too, with up to 50 million hectares of fallow land – an area the size of Spain – available for use in Europe alone.
What’s more, some of the positive impacts of transitioning to the bioeconomy can be realised almost immediately.
Changes to design are already pointing to a revolution in the use of wood as a building material. In the transport sector, which needs to halve emissions every decade between 2020 and 2050, sustainable biofuels can make an almost instant contribution to decarbonisation, a near-term solution on the road to electrification.
Using such fuels wouldn’t require new vehicles or delivery infrastructure but could decarbonise the vehicles already on the road. This is particularly important for heavy goods vehicles, for which electrification, unlike personal vehicles, lies further down the line.
As Henrik Henriksson, president and CEO at Scania, said at a recent discussion hosted by Xynteo on this topic: “Sustainable biofuels are the only technology that can enable us to make cuts in emissions quickly enough, here and now, in vehicles that are on the road. And we are simply not doing enough in Europe to fulfil the opportunity that biofuels offer.”
The bioeconomy requires a holistic strategy that harnesses the value inherent in the biosphere, strengthens food security and reduces emissions
Other kinds of products will require longer-term incubation. While some sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, have long turned to the natural environment to unearth new molecules and medicinal properties in plants, microbes and fungi, we are only scratching the surface of the potential for bioplastics, biochemicals and other bio-based materials.
Key to realising the benefits of the bioeconomy is adopting a sustainable approach. We need to make sure our use of bioresources supports natural regenerative processes, otherwise the short-term gains may further degrade our ecosystem in the long-term.
This requires a holistic strategy for the bioeconomy that harnesses the value inherent in the biosphere, while strengthening food security and reducing carbon emissions.
Land-use policies will need rebalancing. It makes little sense to support a system that results in farmers being paid less for milk than bottled water while putting onerous restrictions on the use of land for biofuels that could take carbon out of transport now. We should be making use of the 50m hectares of permanently fallow or degraded land in Europe.
In fact, the 2019 IPCC special report on climate change and land indicates that, with the right practices, bioenergy can deliver carbon mitigation at the same time as supporting food security.
We also need to harness innovations in the agricultural sector so we can produce food more efficiently, with fewer carbon emissions, and address soil degradation, which is estimated to cost the EU €38bn annually.
Business has a key role to play by replacing those products that rely on fossil-fuels for manufacture with cleaner alternatives
By taking a holistic approach to the bioeconomy, we have the potential to ground the immediate future of the European economy in sustainable, bio-based foundations.
Business has a key role to play by replacing those products that rely on fossil-fuels for manufacture with cleaner alternatives. To do this will require collaborative working that helps to develop standards that underpin sustainability, engage consumers in making better choices and invest in innovation.
Forming partnerships with governments will also allow for the development of a comprehensive policy framework, anchored in sustainability. That’s why we’re helping pull together a cross-sector coalition of businesses, supported by Scania and Yara, to explore and develop the potential of the bioeconomy in Europe.
It may be that the key to the future of growth in Europe lies less in harnessing silicon and more in our soil, our forests and our seas.
Osvald Bjelland is CEO of impact consultancy Xynteo.