In the News: Update of bioeconomy strategy unsure

© European Biotechnology

27.06.2017 -

The following text was first published by European Biotechnology and can be accessed here.

Uncertainty regarding the amount of future funding and political support from the European Commission for the bioeconomy is set to hamper investments into the switch from oil-based industry production to renewable, bio-based manufacture in Europe. The schedule for the review of the bioeconomy strategy has been delayed until the end of 2017. More importantly, it is not yet certain if the strategy will be updated.

“The discussion whether there will be a new strategy is still open,” said Lino Paula from DG Research and Innovation. In late March, at the BioSTEP Forum “Creating Networks for the Transition to a Bio-based and Circular Economy” in Brussels, Paula announced that the results of the review would not be available before the end of the year. Originally, the plan was to conclude the review at the end of 2016 (see European Biotechnology, Spring 2016).

Accordingly, it remains unclear for investors, industry, and private-public partnerships, such as the €3.7bn Bio-based Industry JU, whether the European Commission will change the initial strategy adopted in 2012. With Horizon 2020, the Commission had doubled its funding for the bioeconomy compared to FP7, to an amount of about €4bn.

Short story, long decision

After the adoption of the Circular Economy Action Plan, the Commission decided to examine the contribution of its bioeconomy strategy to the circular economy. The debate as to whether the bio­economy strategy needed a revision or not continued at the Environment Council (ENV) in June 2016. This year, the Commission expects several expert reports, including one in June, the Bioeconomy Stakeholders Manifesto, a societal agenda for bioeconomy finalised by the European Bioeconomy Panel: a group of primary producers, policy-makers, public administrations, scientists, and researchers, as well as civil society interest groups. Finally, in mid-November 2017, results of the current evaluation of the strategy are to be presented at a Bioeconomy Day in Brussels, Waldemar Kütt, Head of Unit Bioeconomy Strategy at DG Research, told European Biotechnology. “A decision on a possible revision of the bioeconomy strategy will likely be taken early 2018.” If the strategy is then revised, an updated review will be available at the end of 2018 at the earliest. 

Previous announcements said that it would be published in 2017 (see European Biotechnology, Spring Edition 2016).

Preparing the ground for a circular bioeconomy

According to Paula, it is important that “stakeholders get involved and give input now,” in order to assure that the outcomes of the bio-based value chains do fit the needs of society. At the BioSTEP meeting, 55 experts gathered to discuss how the input and needs of the highly diverse stakeholders crucial to a successful transition to bio-based and circular production processes could be merged. In April, BioSTEP published a white paper summarising its recommendations for a commonly accepted governance of the bioeconomy: 

  • Support the networking of SMEs: As the development of bio-based products and processes is often hampered by a lack of cooperation and investment, BioSTEP recommends that public agencies act as matchmakers. Creating a coherent regulatory framework would be crucial for supporting more investments in the field.
  • Create public acceptance: As a first step for creating broad acceptance of bio-based products and processes, BioSTEP recommends involving NGOs and civil society organisations in discussions regarding the implementation of the bio-based and circular economy. Trust in biobased products (versus distrust in green claims from the industry) would be a precondition for market uptake. Thus, development of a common understanding of benefits and risks would be crucial for fostering a positive perception in the general public. However, only the right mix of communication tools (namely, education, information, discussion, or knowledge production) will bring the message to the specific target group.
  • Create opportunities for input at all stages of strategy development: Besides built-in participation, stakeholders must have the opportunity for intervention in later stages (at the implementation/evaluation stage) of the bioeconomy and circular economy strategies, according to the bio­STEP paper.

Starting nationally

While consensus building at the EU level often is difficult, due to divergent regional needs and preferences, local and national bioeconomy strategies are setting starting points for broader coalitions. According to the Lodz paper published last year (see European Biotechnology, Winter edition 2016), “there is not a single global bio­economy. It’s local by nature.” The policy paper recommends using ESIF funds (€20bn in total) to implement local bioeconomy solutions, to network regionally, and only then, to create an integrated effort, including the education of the civil society.

A potential way forward has been demonstrated by national bioeconomy strategies implemented, for example, in Germany and, most recently, in Italy and in France. Recently, the French government announced a national bioeconomy strategy (European Biotechnology, Spring 2017) and is now looking for input from other nations to determine the best means for implementation. In April, several German ministers announced that the biologising of industry could become as important as digitalisation in the next legislators’ term starting this autumn.

While Europe has positioned itself as a technology leader, bio-based production has moved to Asia. According to the latest market survey provided by the Cologne-based nova-Institute, growth in production capacities for biopolymers has decreased from 10% annually, from 2012 – 2014 to just 4% in 2015 and 2016, due to low oil prices and a lack of political support. According to nova-Institute, political support from the French and Italian governments for bioplastic bags contributes to the 10% annual growth rate for biobased PLA. According to nova-Institute, biopolymers are still, as of yet, a niche market that needs political support. By 2021, the experts predict biopolymers will contribute 8.5 million tonnes to the 300 million-tonne plastics market – just 2% bio- versus 98% oil-based products.

The BioSTEP policy paper

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