Towards sustainable and flourishing bioeconomy

Europe is slowly shifting towards bioeconomy, but a lot could be done to speed up the process. There are already plenty of examples of advanced biotechnology in the fields of agriculture, health and energy industry and the potential for new innovations is huge. Bioeconomy often goes hand in hand with circular economy, which is one of the hot topics in EU at the moment. Bioeconomy can also be one of the solutions to achieve the climate goals.

The European Commission and the European Parliament are working on a wide variety of energy and climate issues, such as the EU emission trading system (EU ETS), land use, land-use change and forestry policy (LULUCF) and the revision of the renewable energy directive (RES). Especially the forest industry is waiting for the results of the on-going work on the sustainability criteria for biomasses and the calculation methods for carbon sinks. All these policies are very important considering the future perspectives and possibilities of bioeconomy.

In most of the Europe attitudes and especially the future expectations towards biotechnology are positive. But that is not the case everywhere. In many of the European countries forests have been logged down and priceless natural resources have been heavily damaged. Therefore, the conservation of the remaining natural resources is often the number one priority. Conservation is of course the only right thing to do, if the nature and its diversity are in danger. However, at the same time it should be remembered that there are also countries that have rich natural resources that can be utilized in a sustainable manner.

Finland is one of the European countries that have large forest resources that are well cared for. There is a long tradition of responsible forest management and cooperation between different actors. The government, forest industry and NGOs for environmental protection and nature conservation are in continuous dialogue. All the different stakeholders understand that it is in everybody’s interest that the natural resources are treated with care. This approach offers firm basis for prosperous bio-based industry.

Also the forest industry has a strong trust on the future prospects of bioeconomy. The Finnish pulp and paper company Metsä Group is currently building a next-generation bioproduct mill in Äänekoski. The mill will produce softwood pulp for the paper industry and use by-products to generate renewable electricity. It also has capacity for wide-scale production of bioproducts. All of the energy the mill requires will be generated from wood and the mill will not use any fossil fuels.

The mill is a model example of innovative biotechnology and it also puts into practice the idea of circular economy: all the side products and side streams will been utilised. A whole ecosystem of small companies is expected to evolve around the mill. The project is expected to create 6000 jobs during the construction phase and when completed sustain more than 2500 jobs in the entire value chain, of which approximately 1500 will be new.

This is exactly what Europe needs: future-oriented investments that great jobs and growth. Äänekoski bioproduct mill also serves as an example, how the companies can utilise the public investment funds. The company has received an investment subsidy for renewable energy from the Finnish government and the project also benefits from a loan by the European Investment Bank (EIB), part of it guaranteed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).

The rapid development of advanced biofuels is another very promising phenomenon. The use of biofuels will hopefully increase significantly in the near-future, especially in aviation. The technology already exists both for the airplanes and for producing the biofuels. Many airlines have already flied commercial flights using biofuels that are produced out of waste.  As the earlier bioproduct mill example, developing biofuels also answers to many existing concerns: utilising waste saves natural resources and increases the share of renewable energy, which helps to cut CO2 emission and fight climate change.

However, both of these cases prove that new innovations and ideas don’t come for granted. Behind these success stories there are long and ambitious research and development projects. The creation of new products and processes require investments in R&D. Highly refined products, know-how and skilful employees are the keys for the success and competitiveness of the European industry also in the future. Since the public grants for R&D have decreased in many European countries, close cooperation between universities, research institutions and companies are needed. Companies should also utilise EU’s Horizon2020 programme, where 80 billion Euros are reserved for research and innovations. There is money allocated both for high-level academic research and for the R&D purposes of SMEs.

Europe can and should be the forerunner in the field of bioeconomy. To foster the development EU and its member states should boost investments in innovation and infrastructure, and be careful not to over-regulate bioeconomy. Europe also needs to be open for the new ideas and new business models that the development of technology brings along.

The Parliament Magazine 26.9.2016

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