By Peter Gerhardt
The era of fossil fuels is coming to an end, leaving humanity having to increasingly draw on renewable resources. In this context, the bioeconomy has become established as the term for an economy fed by biogenic resources. This puts pressure on our forests, as wood is expected to play a significant role in supplying the resources for a bio-based future despite already being exhausted by global demand for timber as a fuel, a construction material, for power generation or pulp.
Our planet’s natural limits are frequently at the centre of political debates these days: Climate change has moved millions of people around the globe. Brazil’s burning rainforests are no longer a matter of national but of worldwide importance, given the effect on the global climate. Even the biodiversity loss has reached the mainstream: Petitions like “Save the bees” are mobilising millions of supporters.
At the same time, a large share of the population is guided by liberal market forces – to the point that the economy governs all areas of life. And it is not clear how politics can contain such a profit-oriented economy. As a consequence, the gap between haves and have-nots is growing dramatically. There is a fight to agree how global wealth should be distributed, and it is increasingly destabilising the international order. Apparent certainties such as social peace or democracy are starting to feel strangely fragile in industrial states such as Germany.
Tough battles are also being fought by people looking for fair access to arable and other land. The situation ist grotesque: Independently held debates about the climate, biodiversity or the bioeconomy have developed different “plans” for how to use the Earth. Scientists from the ETH Zurich get international news for their plans to plant an additional 900 million hectares (an area larger than Brazil) of forest to fight climate change, meanwhile other experts suggest establishing 1,700 million hectares as protected areas for biodiversity. This is in stark contrast to the bioeconomy strategists’ ideas – they envisage Earth to be largely converted into farmland for biomass. In the end, these scenarios compete with each other. This is why legitimate democratic decisions are needed about what is to happen with global land and where.
Clearing forests for bioeconomy
In their search for a future bioeconomy of fibres, oils, starch and timber, global forest ecosystems are increasingly in the limelight. Forests are expected to supply a significant share of these raw materials despite being already exhausted by global demand for timber, for fuel and for paper. The pulp industry alone plans to increase production by ten million tonnes, exceeding what could be responsibly sourced in countries like Brazil. If wood is now, in addition, going to be used as the base material for the bioeconomy in order to develop completely new materials, there is no way the forest will be able to handle this rising demand.
Forest ecosystems are not only a wood supplier; they are also a recreational space and habitat of major significance for environmental protection and biodiversity. These different functions also lead to conflicts and should be negotiated democratically. Forests intended for climate protection cannot also supply the industry with raw materials. It is obvious at first glance that the forest will be unable to supply huge amounts of wood for a bioeconomy. If we want to guarantee that this ecosystem can fulfil all its ecological tasks, the raw material potentials of forests shrink enormously.
Bioeconomy – the world’s new formula
According to its supporters, the bioeconomy is something like a new world formula for solving a multitude of contradictions: Biogenic resources can replace fossil and mineral raw materials, feed the economy, provide a good life for all humans and take care of the planetary limits regarding climate protection and biological diversity. Can this be true?
In the future, the only way the bioeconomy will be able to keep these lofty promises is by using resources more sparingly. This is what development and environmental organisations are asking for. The required transformation will only be successful if fossil fuels are not simply substituted by biogenic ones. Preconditions are a change in consumerism and the establishment of closed cycles as well as cascading and multiple use of products. This contrasts with the current economic model of “Zalando, Amazon & Co.” who are making us believe that Fast Fashion, Fast Food and mindless consumerism will make us happy. If we think through the idea of a responsible bioeconomy, modifying the principles of our economic system is inevitable.
But no signs of such change can be detected in national, European, or international level government strategies. In forestry and agriculture we are told that the exact land use methods that have caused this crisis are to solve it: The German government’s bioeconomy strategy trusts in industrial agriculture and forestry, which have been rightly criticised due to dying insects and spruce trees as well at nitrate loads in our groundwater. Such strategies would increase the economisation of nature. Thankfully there are some critical voices, even at governmental level, but the well-oiled lobby of industry and large agricultural companies is stronger and pushes what the German ministry for commerce and trade promotes as “industrial bioeconomy”.
This is also reflected in the forestry environment. On a national and European level, there are already some generously funded support programmes under way that have more to do with biotech than natural landscaping. Terms such as agroecology, nature-based forestry and fair global distribution are hardly found in any government’s official research catalogue. In line with the above, the industry-oriented bioeconomy lobby has attacked genetic engineering laws and strongly demands they be weakened. They would like more freedom in genetic laboratories and are asking for the precautionary principle to be thrown overboard when it comes to researching new genetic engineering processes such as CRISPR/Cas. The industrial forestry sector, too, promotes using genetically modified trees as a source of raw materials for the bioeconomy.
The bioeconomy is everyone’s business
Key political and research decisions are being made in exclusive, industry-friendly expert circles. With few exceptions, even environmental and development organisations are hardly involved and major charity and social organisations ignore the debate entirely. This could be a disaster as the bioeconomy will primarily affect low-income citizens who won’t be able to prepare themselves for a future without oil, gas and coal. Society will only accept change if it is fair, so it is essential that broad society is part of the debate about what the future bioeconomy looks like. This dialogue can only be a success if the government provides sufficient resources for critical voices to participate.
The bioeconomy can also be seen as a smokescreen created by PR departments to greenwash industrial giants who would otherwise struggle to be accepted. Since there is no generally agreed definition of the bioeconomy, Monsanto & Co. could give their controversial products a green look: GM maize would become “bioeconomic crop production”.
It is feared that especially the poor of the global south will have to pay for rising demand for biomass. The bioeconomy of an industrial nation can only work if biomass is imported from other parts of the world. Already today the “footprint” of the global north reaches as far as Brazil or Indonesia, where global consumer giants drive small and subsistence farmers off their land to produce toilet paper or chocolate bars. If, for example, the chemical industry alone is to replace crude oil by biogenic resources in the future, the pressure on human rights and ecosystems in the global south will rise dramatically.
Bioeconomy and industrial timber plantations
From a global point of view, timber plantations are becoming more and more important as wood suppliers and are therefore possible pillars of a bioeconomic raw materials strategy. It is important not to confuse these industrial landscapes with natural forests. Eucalyptus plantations in Brazil have the biodiversity of a car park, and nothing in common with the original forest vegetation. In South Africa, pulp plantations are built on natural grasslands which are completely unsuitable for growing trees. On top of that, marginalised population groups such as landless people and subsistence farmers are driven out of their habitats by forest plantations.
The first principle of the bioeconomy should be to use forest resources efficiently and innovatively. Products of biogenic origin can usually be integrated into natural cycles more easily and don’t leave behind substances as problematic as those from crude oil chemical engineering. The wood substance lignin, for example, generated in pulp production, is presently burned for process heating. It could instead be used as a valuable base for construction materials. Bioeconomic procedures that highly compact wood also have a promising potential as they might be able to replace steel or concrete.
But such positive steps and the associated euphoria about the new “bio era” would do nothing if ecological forestry principles are neglected. The consequences of the forest being at the heart of new economic interests are currently illustrated by the “new forest dieback” where forests are overexploited and unable to cope with the rigours of the climate crisis. Nevertheless, influential foresters continue whispering about the importance of supporting a type of forestry that is far from natural principles. This has also reached governmental decision makers, who would like to use foreign, dry-resistant types of trees for providing the raw materials of a future bioeconomy.
The bioeconomy at its worst: Burning Biomass in Power Stations
The effects of rising demand for wood biomass is already being shown thanks to power generation based on bioenergy. Power giants such as RWE, Uniper and Vattenfall have started feeding their old coal-fired power station with wood in addition to coal and are on a global shopping spree for more materials. The EU calls this craziness a “climate protection measure”; and in many European countries new wood-fired power stations are springing up like mushrooms. The required wood pellets are primarily sourced from the USA where – according to US-American environmental groups – hardwood forests that should be protected are being logged. Europe’s move to bioeconomic power generation has led to forest destruction elsewhere. The Environmental Paper Network, an international association of environmental organisations, assumes that for industrial power generation alone, more than ten million additional tonnes of wood will have to be logged in the future. It is particularly worrying that Japan and South Korea are also increasingly using wood as fuel for their power stations.
Is Finland becoming a bioeconomy pioneer?
Global timber and pulp giants have recognised the signs of the time and sensed further business opportunities in the wake of bioeconomy debates. Many indicators suggest that Finland will become a pioneer of the wood-based bioeconomy. “Bioeconomy is THE solution”, the forest group Metsä announced grandly. A similar lofty promise was made by UPM, another Finnish competitor, saying “We lead the forest-based bio industry into … an exciting future”. The companies are hoping for new marketing opportunities for products which are already being produced – such as pulp, which could now also become the base material for bioplastics. In parallel, the industry has invested in so-called biorefineries, where wood is fractionated much more finely than in pulp factories, which makes it interesting as a raw material for the chemical industry. Finnish environmental organisations are alarmed because up to 30 million cubic metres of additional timber could be logged for bioeconomic processes in their country. This would increase the Finnish timber harvest by almost 50 per cent. In Germany too, some pilot plants such as the biorefinery in Leuna have started operating, and multinational companies such UPM Kymmene are in the position to invest in plants with larger capacities.
Ecolabels won’t help
It is likely that the industry will once again respond to possible criticism with voluntary certification initiatives. Already today bioenergy is surrounded by eco labels of little credibility, such as the “Sustainable Biomass Program”. Past experience has demonstrated that sustainability certificates for timber, paper, palm oil and soy are unable to stop the expansion of industrial plantations at the cost of natural forests. These labels all follow the same pattern and pretend to appropriately involve those affected and NGOs in a multi-stakeholder procedure, before allowing the industry to push through its economic interests. Development and environmental organisations are therefore well-advised to be highly sceptical of the labelling strategy for the bioeconomy.
The future economy should contribute to a fair society within planetary limits. This is how to measure the success of the bioeconomy. The bioeconomy debate has to leave specialist circles and back offices and move to the centre of society. Development and environmental organisations can help achieve this goal, as can trade unions and charity organisations. In the end, the bioeconomy could be a part of many crucial future issues – and they are everyone’s business.
Peter Gerhardt is director of the ENGO denkhausbremen, coordinator of the German civil society working group on the bioeconomy and member of the steering committee of the Environmental Paper Network International.
This article was first published by denkhausbremen in German. Translated from the German by Anika Burgees with kind support by Richard Wainwright.