Commission official: ‘Bioeconomy is a unique opportunity to address societal challenges’

More and more member states are adopting bioeconomy plans and the EU is actively encouraging its Central and Eastern European partners to develop their own strategies. EURACTIV Slovakia talked to the Commission’s John Bell about the issue.

John Bell is the director of the European Commission’s Bioeconomy Directorate, DG RTD.

Bell was interviewed by EURACTIV Slovakia’s Andrej Furik.

Aren‘t strategies for bioeconomy and circular economy just two sides of the same coin?

Both bioeconomy and circular economy are part of the “green economy”, whose goal is to increase prosperity while maintaining the natural systems that sustain us. Although bioeconomy and circular economy share this common vision, they are not two identical concepts.

Namely, circular economy refers specifically to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention and promotes greater resource productivity and efficiency. It addresses materials that are not of biological origin alongside biological resources and encourages waste reduction throughout the product supply chain and a product’s life cycle.

Bioeconomy also aims for such circularity but in addition also focuses on the sustainable production of biological resources, notably biomass, via sectors ranging from agriculture, forestry, and fisheries to aquaculture. In addition to the production of these primary resources, it encompasses biomass converting industries – ranging from food to bio-based and energy industries.

Additionally, the bioeconomy addresses more than production; it focuses on biodiversity, ecosystems and renewable energy. The bioeconomy’s cross-cutting nature offers a unique opportunity to reconcile competing uses of biomass while comprehensively addressing major societal challenges, such as reducing dependence on fossil resources, or global food security, while addressing trade-offs.

Thus, both circular economy and bioeconomy work to reinforce one another and it is important to fully unlock their potential.

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How important is public support for the uptake of bioeconomy? What is the European Commission doing to promote bio-based solutions?

Bioeconomy is a complex and multi-layered field where developing new value chains depends on the active collaboration of a broad range of stakeholders, like farmers, industry, researchers and public authorities. This implies developing new synergies but also new interdependencies, all of which also imply the building of trust between stakeholders.

Furthermore, bioeconomy products and services can only become economically viable when they are accepted by society, which not only depends on the quality of these products and services itself but also on the trust citizens have in the governance of bioeconomy, for example that the bioeconomy adheres to principles of sustainability and social equality.

It is therefore crucial that society is involved in the development and governance of bioeconomy. Consequently, as underlined during the Bratislava Bioeconomy Conference 17 October, proper societal engagement, awareness, education and training schemes should be developed, since there is no sustainable bioeconomy without the direct involvement of civil society in a co-construction mode, with societal appraisal of bioeconomy.

What is the right way to push forward such a broad and crosscutting concept as bioeconomy?

An integrated bioeconomy strategy implies addressing sustainable biomass supply use and recycling. There is a need to ensure policy coherence to realise a sustainable, circular bioeconomy. This will require active involvement from a number of policy fields and therefore a number of ministries across Europe working together.

The complexity of bioeconomy furthermore implies the active engagement and buy-in of a broad range of stakeholders; from primary producers to industry, NGOs and regions to ensure that inclusive policies are developed that can count on the buy-in of society.

The mobilisation of regional investment in the bioeconomy is an area of real potential. Notably, in Central and Eastern Europe smart specialisation strategies can foster a sustainable use of biomass to build value chains that develop human capital and invest in biorefineries.

How can countries in Central and Eastern Europe, like Slovakia, accelerate their transition to bioeconomy?

Slovakia is a major structural funds (ESIF) beneficiary (about €15 billion), many of which are planned to be invested for the shift towards a low-carbon economy, support of SMEs and agricultural and fishery holdings to increase productivity and added value, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture sector, protection of the environment and resource efficiency promotion.

Slovakia plays also a major role for the EU Strategy for the Danube Region. Consequently, Bioeconomy is part of future Slovak policies. However, Slovakia has not adopted a bioeconomy strategy yet.

An increasing number of EU member states has already developed national bioeconomy strategies, such as Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, recently Spain and likely soon also Italy. The Commission encourages other member states, including those from Central and Eastern European regions, like Slovakia, to develop their respective strategies.

Central Europe discovers the potential of bioeconomy

Today, bioeconomy is a necessity, said Slovak Minister of Agriculture Gabriela Matečná. Central and Eastern Europe is still lagging behind in its uptake, but the key to the transition may be in the regions. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

How specifically?

The Central and Eastern European countries have a lot of under-exploited potential. Slovakia should build its own Bioeconomy Strategy based on its national and regional strengths. Various strategies at macro-regional level, for example the Danube region strategy, are the basis for more cooperation also among regions.

Also, various funds, networks, initiatives and tools are available to enable the uptake of the bioeconomy by the EU regions that were presented during the Bratislava conference in October.

Integration of efforts of regions, their stakeholders, financial institutions and society is paramount to create new opportunities and jobs for green industry, farming, forestry and blue growth.

Regions are also encouraged to launch public procurements for bio-based innovative solutions and sign letters of intent with the Bio-based Industry Joint Undertaking and the Bio-based Industry Consortium to create synergies and exchange best practices to promote investments in Bioeconomy.

Slovakia and all the Central and Eastern European countries are encouraged to use their under-explored biomass potential and invest in research capacity building using their ESIF. In this way, they may also improve their participation in the Horizon 2020 programme.

Do you consider the EFSI a tool that could be decisive in promoting bioeconomy?

The EFSI could contribute to the development of the EU bioeconomy as it could contribute to the financing of bioeconomy projects which have a risk level compatible with its standards, thereby contributing to attract private co-investment into these projects by de-risking them.

Spain the big winner in EFSI funding

Spain has so far benefited the most from the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI). Its SMEs and infrastructure projects have been injected with over €3 billion to date. EURACTIV Spain reports.

Several bioeconomy projects, notably in bio-based industries, have already received loan-financing under EFSI. For example, the Metsä Bio-product Mill project in Äaneskoski, Finland, is a modernised paper and pulp production facility that includes a number of innovative aspects, in particular in making better use of the side streams for production of biomaterials and energy. Co-financing of €75million from EFSI was received by this €1.2 billion (in total) project.

Besides EFSI, other Commission risk-sharing financial instruments, such as for instance financing products under the InnovFin umbrella, could be relevant for bioeconomy projects, provided they are compatible with them. There is therefore a significant potential for more investments in national refineries and related value chain developments.