The European Commission yesterday (13 February) announced its strategy to address food and energy needs as well as promote resource efficiency through a more nimble and sustainable economy.
“We’re too slow and too piecemeal in converting research results into innovation and using these to tackle our biggest societal challenges,” Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation and science, said in unveiling the strategy.
“Policy actions at European and member-state level are often launched in isolation,” she said in calling for “a stronger framework” that involves scientists, policymakers and entrepreneurs.
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The Commission’s strategy, titled ‘Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe’, was welcomed by conservation and industry groups for its emphasis on investing in research and retaining Europe’s competitive edge in sustainable technology.
“We’re really enthusiast about the strategy,” said Joanna Dupont-Inglis, director of industrial biotechnology at the EuropaBio industry association, which represents industrial biotech firms such as DuPont and Novozymes.
“We feel that in terms in of technology, we have the edge in Europe,” she said, “but obviously there are things we still need to fix.”
Dupont-Inglis said public-private partnerships could boost development and investment in areas such as bioplastics production and biofuel refining.
The strategy offers no additional money. It calls for better coordination or efforts through the Common Agricultural Policy, the Horizon 2020 research programme, along with other EU and national programmes. Geoghegan-Quinn said the strategy will offer “direction” toward sustainable growth.
Grow, but be efficient
The bio-economy strategy broadly reflects the Commission’s current focus on improving resource efficiency, conserving natural resources and shifting to renewable energy while promoting economic growth.
But some provisions are almost certain to be controversial. Geoghegan-Quinn called the development of biofuels "really, really important as we move forward,” saying Europe’s refining capacity needs to grow.
Yet there are mounting concerns – even among commissioners – that fuels derived from plants may not be as benign as first thought when the EU embraced alternative diesel and ethanol in a 2003 directive on alternative fuels.
A draft Commission impact assessment indicates that the greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels such as palm oil, soybean and rapeseed may exceed those of fossil fuels when wider factors – such as the clearing of tropical forests and wetlands to grow biofuel crops – are considered.
“Personally, I’ve always been very cautious on biofuels,” Connie Hedegaard, the EU climate change commission, told EurActiv in a recent interview. “It’s great to see the potential in new technologies, but we should take very much care in Europe that we are now not establishing a new big industry that we then - after some time - say, wow, that was not so good.”
Other proposals in the bio-economy plan are likely to be less controversial, although implementation is far from a done deal.
For example, the strategy urges turning food waste into biomass energy and fertilisers. Studies show that food and plant waste accounts for as much as 40% of landfill content in the EU.
The Commission’s strategy also envisions innovations and research helping to lift agricultural efficiency while conserving water and other natural resources. Some €4.7 billion has been proposed in the Commission's research programme, Horizon 2020, for sustainable agriculture, maritime research and the bio-economy.