Promoting a circular, sustainable bioeconomy – delivering the bioeconomy society needs

This IEEP blog reflects on the future role of the bioeconomy in society. It considers what the 2018 EU’s Bioeconomy Strategy revision needs to achieve to promote an equitable, environmentally responsible bioeconomy that delivers economic benefits and empowers rural actors.

The bioeconomy exists and has done for centuries. It involves primary producers, processors, retailers and consumers of bio-based products from food and feed to fuels and materials. The last decade has seen a growing desire to deliver more from the bioeconomy in terms of added economic value, social and environmental needs, such as low-carbon and renewable materials. This is driven by a variety of factors including a desire to promote rural development and prosperity, add value to biomass commodities, reduce dependency on fossil fuels throughout the economy including plastics, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase removals, improve resource efficiency and add value to wastes and residues. As a consequence, there is a move to reimagine the EU bioeconomy and its delivery of goods and services to society.

The 2018 revision of the EU’s Bioeconomy Strategy was intended to emphasise the delivery of a circular, bioeconomy focused on delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals and commitments to greenhouse gas emission reduction. The objectives of the 2012 Strategy have been retained, which is welcomed. However, there is often a misconception that the bioeconomy is inherently resource efficient, results in climate friendly action and meets wider societal needs. Unfortunately, as with most human endeavours, the bioeconomy is not sustainable by default.

Therefore, it is important that all five of the objectives of the Strategy be considered holistically when evaluating developments towards a bioeconomy. This will require effective monitoring and review systems which are able to capture developments over diverse spheres of change.

The bioeconomy is primarily reliant on land, a physically finite resource. Despite the ability to grow and re-grow biomass, there are natural limits to using this land sustainably. Yet, the evolving bioeconomy implies increased needs and demands for and from land, not all of which can be delivered in synergy. Some land may need to be reserved for meeting specific needs,  such as afforestation to sequester carbon (as called for at scale in the recent IPCC report). The development of the bioeconomy should therefore encourage sustainable and synergistic resource use, rather than adding to resource pressure.

One of the objectives the revised Bioeconomy Strategy is creating a bioeconomy operating on the basis of the resources available within the limits of the planet. Respecting these limits means that the bioeconomy will need to be built primarily on the existing resource that can be provided from forests and agricultural land, at least up to 2050; given that new forest will take several decades to mature. This implies that choices need to be made about the materials available to feed new demand and that with existing consumption patterns, the bioeconomy simply does not have the capacity to deliver a one to one replacement of existing products. Developing within existing resource availability means that the bioeconomy itself needs to be highly efficient, targeted at the delivery of priority products and services for society and feeding into an economy that is already circular. The delivery of a wider circular economy (i.e. where overall consumption is reduced and based on principles of reuse and recycling) is a precondition of a successful and sustainable evolution of the bioeconomy.

Done effectively the bioeconomy offers a huge opportunity to society and to rural actors in particular. This should include mechanisms that reward first movers, and also protects them from the risks associated with a sector reliant on an evolving pool of technology and knowledge, whilst avoiding system lock-in to the wrong types of solutions. Central to enabling and realising this potential is renewed efforts to engage and empower rural actors who already struggle to have a voice in the more established agri-food chain.

Value added from the bioeconomy should be delivered at all stages of the supply chain from producers (farmers, foresters) to processers and final product manufactures. Consumers must also recognise their role as facilitators of the bioeconomy. Consumer decisions about the products they purchase and their waste management are key to delivering a bioeconomy that is targeted and as circular as possible

Ultimately, the success of the new Bioeconomy Strategy will be judged on whether it has helped to address the EU’s sustainability challenges, rather than adding to them.