The EU is well positioned to drive a shift to a sustainable bioeconomy, but there are important questions to answer in this transition. How can the EU work in tandem with other countries and regions? How can it ensure the “green leap” doesn’t deplete forests or harm ecosystems when demand for bio-based materials goes up? And how can it make sure the bioeconomy benefits more people than the fossil-fuel based trajectory?

Viewing the EU as an anchor point, a recent policy paper sets out to answer these questions, and presents initial scientific evidence underpinning a future bioeconomy strategy and implementation.

There is no one-size-fits-all development pathway for bioeconomy: strategies will differ depending on the varying biophysical and socio-economic circumstances in different countries and regions. However, it is possible to identify some common principles to guide this transition to align different pathways with global sustainability goals.

Why the EU?

First, as the major political force in implementing the Paris Agreement, the EU must take the lead in achieving climate and development goals, which includes a key role for the bioeconomy.

Second, the EU has well-developed regulations, high institutional and business capacity and financial capital. Given political will, these qualities enable the EU to mainstream bioeconomy in national and international policies and bring bio-innovations to scale.

Third, as the world’s second largest economy and a major world trading power, the EU is closely interlinked with other countries and regions through the exchange of goods, finance, knowledge and people.

There is a catch, however: the EU’s per capita resource use and ecological footprint are very high, exceeding a fair share of global biocapacity, and it relies strongly relies on bioresources from other world regions. In fact, two thirds of cropland required to satisfy EU non-food demands (bioenergy and other biomaterials) are currently located elsewhere, mainly in Asia. The largest chunk of the EU’s food-related biomass imports originate from Africa.

While increasing self-sufficiency won’t hurt, shutting down existing international supply chains isn’t the solution because doing so could hinder bioeconomy development elsewhere. Instead, EU member states must work toward sustainable sourcing, production and consumption. This effort can be supported by the three principles of common responsibility, systemic coherence, and knowledge-based decision-making.

Local people in Burundi carry palm nuts for palm oil production. The largest share of the EU’s biomass imports for food come from Africa Photo: SeppFriedhuber / Getty Images.

Common responsibility

Primarily concerned with protecting our resource base and human well-being, this requires us to apply high environmental and socio-economic standards throughout all bioeconomic operations and supply chains.

The environmental component of this principle can be illustrated through biodiversity loss. The EU’s external biodiversity footprints occur primarily in developing countries, often located in megadiverse tropical environments. Increase in biomass demand in the EU, if not properly managed, could trigger further biodiversity loss in the exporting countries. The common responsibility principle calls for the EU to minimize such serious ecological risks.

The social equity component of this principle stems from the “leaving no one behind” imperative, expressed in the SDGs and illustrated by the starkly different quality of life in Europe vs. regions with lower incomes. In order to meet these goals, EU biomass production and processing is regulated by various standards which support the protection and enforcement of human rights, land rights and decent working conditions. Without this principle bioeconomy may become an excuse for business as usual in which the Global South remains or becomes a provider of raw bioresources without advancing towards their own modern bioeconomies.

A bead of sap on a sugar cane under a clear blue sky in Upper Egypt, North Africa.

Sugar cane in Egypt: A bio-based economy is touted as a replacement for a fossil-fuel economy, but how can the transition be sustainable? Photo: Tom Allen / Getty Images.

Systemic coherence

Bioeconomy involves complex interactions, synergies and trade-offs across sectors, disciplines, scales and regions and therefore touches on various local, national and international policy areas, from environment and climate to agriculture, industry, development and trade. For the bioeconomy to work, action across all these different areas and levels have to be consistent and coordinated.

Strategic coherence means combining and leveraging resources, knowledge and experience of all stakeholders towards a successful bioeconomic transition. Coordinated integrated action will require mainstreaming bioeconomy strategies into existing policy on agriculture, energy, product design and packaging, procurement, construction and waste management. Some of the various national and EU policy frameworks with which the bioeconomy strategy needs to align include the circular and green economy, resource efficiency (the EU Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe), agriculture (in particular the Common Agricultural Policy), energy (including other renewables besides bioenergy), and the Lisbon Strategy.

Internationally, EU bioeconomy policies need to foster mutual benefits from trade in bioresources, including opportunities for technology transfer and institutional capacity-building. The EU bioeconomy needs to develop through partnerships with bioeconomies in other countries and regions, and the EU can play a key role in aligning and harmonizing different bioeconomy pathways. This will require greater capacity for governance and implementation in partner countries, which can be achieved by levelling the playing field, improving rules for cooperation, supporting fair trade, recognizing negative externalities and devising safeguards against them.

Knowledge-based decision-making

Finally, any bioeconomy strategy needs to be underpinned by a comprehensive and quantitative data and information base on the production, processing, and use and re-use of bioresources.

Bioeconomic strategists will have to identify and evaluate trade-offs between various kinds of resource use and policy goals, such as on food security, poverty and inequality, health, land, water, soil and climate change. Decisions on how to allocate land and resources across different biomass uses – for food, feed, fuel and materials – requires careful scientific evaluation.

A bioeconomy transition needs scientific evidence for evaluating, comparing and eventually monitoring different transition pathways. Decision-making, from selection of plant species for a certain area to local, regional and international land-use decisions and investments, needs to be based on state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, methods, tools and indicators.

Studies have already shown it is possible through coherent policies and institutions to improve the allocation, production and use of land and biomass through sustainable sourcing, sustainable intensification and other integrated strategies. Such approaches can minimize the risks for climate goals, ecological health and other Sustainable Development Goals. Effective implementation of these “smart” bioeconomic solutions needs ongoing science-policy dialogue to ensure adaptive governance that constantly incorporates new data and evidence.

The IEEP paper that this feature draws on is a collaborative effort between SEI, the Institute for European Environmental Policy and Center for Development Research University of Bonn (ZEF) and was prepared for the Think 2030 sustainability platform.