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The bioeconomy promises to lead the next rising wave of global economic development

Renewable energy, renewable raw materials and recyclable products pose a positive challenge to our current fossil fuel dependence”. John Bell, Director at the European Commission in charge of bioeconomy, talks to Il Bioeconomista.

In this long exclusive interview, he talks about the new strategy on bioeconomy, the EU’s new research and innovation programme, the role of member states and regions and the connection between bioeconomy and society.

At the First Bioeconomy Summit in November 2015, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas said: “We need the bioeconomy to go from being a niche to the norm”. What are the main objectives that the Commission has achieved in these two and a half years?

The EU Bioeconomy Strategy has substantially delivered during the past years on its objectives, through a wide array of actions ranging from the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation, to public-private partnerships. These actions have led to the creation of new bio-based value chains and the development of several national strategies, of regional platforms and of stakeholder panels, all promoting the development of local bioeconomies valuing local resources and adapted to local needs.

The bioeconomy and the bio-based economy can help replace fossil fuels, but this is not just about energy. Through Horizon 2020, the current research and innovation programme, we are also looking into new emerging sectors such as biomaterials and green chemistry. Through the bioeconomy, Europe will find new commercial and competitive uses for its natural resources, develop innovative, resource-efficient industrial processes and take the lead in the creation of entirely new, environmentally sustainable markets. Already now, a growing number of enterprises in the Member States and regions have taken up the ideas of bioeconomy into practise. New innovations help the industry to be more sustainable, to use natural resources more efficiently, to have a lower carbon footprint, to reduce dependency on the fossil resources and to use biowaste and residues as raw material for higher value products.Accelerating development will offer important opportunities for innovation, jobs and growth, helping Europe ‘reindustrialise’, while strictly controlling the environmental footprint.

Bioeconomy is highlighted and interlinked with various other EU policies and initiatives, such as the Circular Economy Package, the renewed Industrial Policy Strategy and the Future of Food and Farming Communication of the future Common Agricultural Policy.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, director of UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, launched a report written at Commissioner Moedas’ request on mission-oriented approach for the EU’s new research and innovation programme. How can this approach give benefits to the development of the bioeconomy?

The Commission is currently preparing an update of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy that will be adopted later this year. The process is running in parallel with the preparation of the next research and innovation programme entitled “Horizon Europe”, which will be launched in 2021. Research and innovation in the area of food, agriculture and the wider Bioeconomy is clearly a focus of the new Horizon Europe programme. The Commission has proposed to raise investment in this area to €10 billion in the next budget for 2021-2027.

It is important to keep in mind that the Bioeconomy cuts across and interconnects sectors and policies, taking into account their synergies and trade-offs. It adds value to biological resources and to the natural capital, seeking an optimal balance among environmental, societal and economic gains. A lot of work still needs to be done to create a sustainable, circular, low-carbon society. A better understanding of ocean resources is also necessary to underpin sound policies for their sustainable development. In the new research and innovation programme, missions can be used to further boost bioeconomy in the EU and create growth and jobs at local level. I am convinced that knowledge-based bioeconomy fully respectful of the environment can make an important contribution to sustainable development in Europe.

The Commission has often stressed its commitment to work closely with EU member states and other relevant organisations to develop national bioeconomy strategies. How important are these national strategies for the development of the European bioeconomy? And how relevant is the role of the regions in the European bioeconomy?

The Commission, EU Member States and European regions have made a lot of efforts to support the bioeconomy at all levels by sustainably managing natural resources, including soil as well as inland and marine waters. The aim of bioeconomy strategies is to ensure that the bioeconomy as a whole is a vehicle for inclusive and sustainable growth at the local level.

The EU Bioeconomy Strategy inspired many Member States and regions to build their own national and regional bioeconomy strategies. Things are moving fast. Until 2015, only Germany and Finland had a dedicated national bioeconomy strategy. In the last two years, five more Member States – Spain, Italy, France, Latvia and Ireland – launched their dedicated bioeconomy strategies. So have Norway and Iceland. UK’s strategy is almost ready, while Austria and Estonia are preparing their own strategies. Some other Member States have related strategies. Unfortunately, EU countries in Central and Eastern Europe lag behind despite their huge biomass potential, but are now activated through the BIOEAST initiative that allows these countries to better cooperate and develop synergies on bioeconomy related issues. Also, it is very promising that almost all EU regions have included bioeconomy-related priorities in their Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation (RIS3).

Our goal, also via the updated EU Bioeconomy Strategy, is that all Member States adopt a dedicated bioeconomy strategy that goes beyond research and innovation and covers all bioeconomy-relevant policy areas, such as agriculture, forestry, industry, environment, regional, etc. However, to move to the next phase of our economic development, towards an innovative, circular, resource efficient, low-carbon economy, these efforts should be stepped up further. We need to think globally and act locally. Expanding the bioeconomy, particularly in rural and suitable forested areas of the EU, represents a strong development potential in terms of growth and jobs. To this end, this potential can only be harnessed if those involved on the ground, not only at regions level, but also in cities and municipalities pursue shared objectives and cooperate closely.

The Commission can stimulate research in bioeconomy, strengthen financing, but may also act as catalyser in facilitating the networking and exchange of best practices among Member States and regions.

One of the main objectives of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy is to promote the transition to a low carbon economy by 2050. This transition requires society to take up a new active role. What is the Commission doing to connect bioeconomy and society?

The goal of the EU bioeconomy strategy is to pave the way to a more innovative, resource efficient and competitive society that reconciles food security with the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes, while ensuring environmental protection. So, it is all about improving the functioning of the society while ensuring long term sustainability. However, our society and consumers are not always aware of the benefits of bioeconomy. One of the main challenges we have to face towards expanding the bioeconomy is to change the mindset of consumers with respect to food waste and scarcity of natural resources and motivate them towards more sustainable consumption patterns.

In this frame, a lot of work needs to be done hand-in-hand with the national and regional policy-makers and other stakeholders. There is a need for outreach communication campaigns for society and behavioural change of consumers, policy makers and waste and water managers. To contribute to this goal, the Commission has launched several projects towards better communicating the bioeconomy and raising awareness on the results of the Horizon 2020 programme. Many events and campaigns are organised at national and local level, especially in those parts of Europe not yet fully aware of the bioeconomy.

We have also set up a bioeconomy stakeholders panel that includes representatives from the industry, regions, primary production and NGOs to better communicate the bioeconomy objectives and policy lines. In parallel, we encourage Member States and regions to further promote the bioeconomy in the frame of their own dedicated bioeconomy strategies and/or smart specialisation strategies in close cooperation with the society and their stakeholders.

The Bioeconomy strategy is structured around three pillars: Investments in research, innovation and skills; Reinforced policy interaction and stakeholder engagement; and Enhancement of markets and competitiveness. The Commission is working on an update of the bioeconomy strategy. From your point of view, what are the three pillars on which the updated strategy must be based?

The bioeconomy promises to lead the next rising wave of global economic development. Renewable energy, renewable raw materials and recyclable products pose a positive challenge to our current fossil fuel dependence. High demand scenarios project that global demand for biomass will double by 2050 and EU demand will increase nearly 50% (global and EU demand, 12 and 1 billion tonnes dry matter respectively) due to increased use of biomass for biomaterials and bioenergy/fuels.

This can only be realised with a coherent EU Bioeconomy Strategy that ensures food security, the sustainable supply, use and recycling of biomass, adequate private and public funding for Research and Innovation actions, harmonization of policies and regulations ensuring coherence, active involvement of Member States, local communities and the society, adequate training and skills development.

In view of the new policy context the last years (circular economy package, Paris Agreement, sustainable development goals, new Industrial Regulation etc.), our updated strategy will reassess its scope and re-focus its actions towards a more sustainable and circular, resource efficient, low-carbon and inclusive development for the benefit of our society.

Source: Il Bioeconomista