Photo: Robert Ramos
Moving towards a sustainable bioeconomy requires new methods and tools to support evidence-based decision making
Developing a sustainable bioeconomy is a prominent strategy in the current European policy. While this offers significant opportunities for the forest-based sector, it also poses challenges for decision making, such as streamlining waste, energy, forest and agricultural policies. There is potential to intensify the utilisation of forest biomass to feed an expanding bioeconomy. Across Europe, on average, only three quarters of the biomass growth is currently harvested annually. But how can we intensify land use sustainably without undesirable consequences like biodiversity decline or deterioration of future site productivity? While new evidence-based tools and innovative management approaches are already available, more effort needs to be made to support decision making in sustainable land management.
One option to cope with growing demand for biomass without increasing pressure on land use is to improve resource efficiency, for example through cascade use of biomass. Cascade use involves utilisation of increasingly lower quality biomass, increasing the number of end use products that can be produced from a single unit of biomass before combustion or disposal. For example, at the end of one product life cycle, discarded wood material can be utilised as raw material for at least one more wood product life cycle before finally being burned to generate bioenergy. This could offer numerous sustainability benefits such as reduced pressure on natural resources and enhanced climate change mitigation effects. However, there are strongly diverging views and doubts whether cascade use of woody biomass is also a viable option in practice.
A key objective of the international conference “Towards a Sustainable Bioeconomy” was to capture these different views. The first day focused on scientific concepts and assessment tools for the bioeconomy. The second day was dedicated to science-policy-practice interaction with active stakeholder involvement in a range of working groups. Silvia Melegari from the European Organisation of the Sawmill Industry emphasised the dangers of market distortion that would be generated from legislation around cascade use. Her concerns were stilled by Flor Diaz Pulido (DG Grow) who stated that the European Commission did not intend to introduce legislation on the cascade principle. Markku Karlsson (European Biofuels Technology Platform) emphasised the opportunity for European industry around development of high added value biomaterials and biofuels.
What clearly emerged from the conference discussions was that regional conditions for the bioeconomy vary across Europe. In Scandinavia the forest industry is forced to make large investments to build biorefineries and produce new bio-based products, partly replacing old pulp and paper mills which have lost competitiveness on international markets. Mediterranean and Central European forestry maintain a focus on multifunctional use and ecosystem services. Joan Boix (Managing director of "Serradora Boix" , a regional sawmill) highlighted the challenges in improving the mobilisation of forest resources and the increasing biomass competition with the energy sector. Large areas of forest are currently not managed because of limited accessibility, low forest productivity and high harvesting costs. Forest fires are also a major threat in the region. As Josep Maria Elorduy Vidal, Secretary General in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food of the Regional Government of Catalonia stated in his opening speech, the region is recognising sustainable biomass utilisation as an important target and opportunity in regional policy making. Enhanced biomass utilisation can be used to generate renewable energy and simultaneously helps to counteract the enormous fire risk in unmanaged forests. To support these objectives, several million euros will be invested into biomass boilers to heat public buildings.
The scientific sessions on the Science Day on 21 October were:
- Transition towards bioeconomy: changing production systems and consumption patterns
- Innovative climate change mitigation strategies for the forest-based sector
- Assessing sustainability in forestry, agriculture and related bioenergy systems
- Optimal forest operations for a sustainable biomass supply
- Environmental challenges for the bioeconomy
- Economic and social challenges for the bioeconomy
The Sciency-Policy-Practice interaction day (22 Oct) focused on the topic Cascade use of biomass. Is cascading use of biomass a superior concept in the context of a sustainable bioeconomy? Can we prove it is beneficial for land managers, industry and society? Are there winners and losers? What are the drivers or barriers to cascade use? Do we need additional rules and regulations? These are some of the questions that were discussed in a series of interactive sessions – see more details in the day’s programme.
The conference was organised in cooperation with the European Biofuels Technology Platform and it is part of the European Commission's online initiative "Europe's CAP - Taking care of our roots".