The future of a circular bioeconomy in Europe

17 October 2018

Paul Brannen MEP's speech at the Paper & Beyond conference in the European Parliament in Brussels


All politicians are faced from time to time with tensions between a leadership role as regards public opinion and a representative role re public opinion. 

Environmental messages can cause politicians sleepless nights, The Inconvenient Truth of climate change being the classic example.

The science as set out by the IPCC last week gives us 12 years to get our act together or face irreversible climate change.

The IPCC have clearly asked the politicians to lead - to show leadership. To which the most powerful democratically elected politician in the world replied when asked about climate change, “I don't know that it's manmade” and that temperatures "could very well go back".

... and no doubt his poll ratings will go up in response.

There doesn´t seem to be a majority of votes for tackling climate change, if there were we would have Green governments across the EU and the Greens would be the biggest group in the EP - they´re not.

In next year`s European Parliament elections the evidence suggests it will be the parties who say the least about climate change and the environment who will fare the best.


Is there any hope?

Yes, this conference is part of that hope.


Threats are also opportunities.

And the bigger the threat, the bigger the opportunity.

There is no bigger threat than climate change, hence de facto there is no bigger opportunity than climate change.

In the climate and environment debate we have overstated the threat and we have understated the opportunity.

Climate change is a threat - the public know that.

What they don´t know, to the same degree, is that the circular economy and the bioeconomy are central to addressing climate change and present a huge opportunity for innovation, for jobs and for growth.

One million new jobs by 2030 across the EU, says the Commission.

As the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Commissioner Katainen said:

"It has become evident that we need to make a systemic change in the way we produce, consume and discard goods. By developing our bioeconomy – the renewable segment of the circular economy – we can find new and innovative ways of providing food, products and energy, without exhausting our planet's limited biological resources. Moreover, rethinking our economy and modernising our production models is not just about our environment and climate. There is also great potential here for new green jobs, particularly in rural and coastal areas.

We now have the opportunity to promote both the concept of the circular economy and the concept of the bioeconomy to the European public.

The concept of the circular economy, while often not referred to using this terminology, is well embedded in the consciousness of the European public, with ´recycling´ being the English word that most people can relate to.  Glass, metal, paper ... have all been recycled at scale for many years.

Steel is the most recycled material on the planet which in 2014, stood at 86 percent.

Nearly 75 percent of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today.

Paper, where collection systems exist, has a high recycling rate.

Likewise glass.

In my constituency of the North East of England, the Austrian firm Egger make wooden kitchen units using 50% recycled wood.

It´s not a complicated step of understanding to move from ´recycling´ to ´circular economy´ combined with the explanation that if it needs to be circular to avoid depleting the world´s limited resources.

The concept of the bioeconomy, while arguable much older than the concept of recycling, is much less well known and this could well prove to be bioeconomy´s Achilles Heel.  What we don´t have is time and it takes time to explain a concept like the bioeconomy to a public of 500 million people - even only to reach 20% of them takes time.

Without time the answer is going to have to be that we get on and grow the bioeconomy and then explain retrospectively that the new factory on the edge of town where sugars for the pharmaceutical industry are made from wood is part of a wider phenomenon know as the bioeconomy.

And that this bioeconomy is necessary so we can build a carbon neutral future in line with the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement.

As many of you will know the revised EU bioeconomy strategy was published last week by the European Commission.

‘A sustainable bioeconomy for Europe: strengthening the connection between economy, society and the environment´.

Many of us were pleased to see some revisions had been made.

In particular the mention of the benefits of the use of engineered wood in the construction industry.

In the earlier draft of the Bioeconomy Strategy there seemed a tendency to be drawn to the more amazing possibilities of what the bioeconomy can produce.  And in a way quite rightly, it is amazing to think that in time we can probably produce everything that we currently produce from fossil fuels from biological resources.

- everything that is currently made from finite oil could be made from infinite biological material.

But note that tiny but hugely important comment ‘in time’ ....  ‘in time’ we can probably produce everything that we currently produce from fossil fuels.

But we don’t have time.

Rather we need some big and quick wins in the battle against climate change.

Which is why it is so important that engineered wood products for the construction industry have been given prominence in the Revised Bioeconomy Strategy.

In fact they are the first product of the bioeconomy to mentioned in Revised Strategy on page 5:

“For instance, in the construction sector engineered wood offers great environmental benefits as well as excellent economic opportunities. Studies show that the average impact of building with 1 ton of wood instead of 1 ton of concrete could lead to an average reduction of 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the complete life cycle of the product (including use and disposal).´´

Constructing buildings out of wood does not sound very amazing because we have always made buildings out of wood.  Making a cotton substitute out of wood such that in future we can have clothes made of wood that are not itchy, does sound amazing!

But the engineered timbers we are making now.  The cotton substitute is in the future.

So the priority has to be what works now.

The use of engineered timbers like Cross Laminated Timber needs to be scaled up immediately.

We have a global housing crisis and if we build the homes that China, India, Mexico, Brazil etc need using traditional building methods predicated on concrete, steel, brick and block - whose collective manufacture accounts for some 15% of global carbon emissions - then its game over in the battle against climate change. 

Which is why I lobbied the Commission, as did others, to make sure engineered timber was given the prominence it deserved.

It is also in keeping with the LULUCF legislation adopted in May this year which made the accounting rules (the rules for how we will account for carbon sequestration and emission) more favourable for the long-life harvested wood products such as CLT.

So a ‘thank you’ to the Commission for listening.

Now is also an opportune time to catalyse Europe´s circular bioeconomy.

The week after the IPCC produced its most alarming report to date, giving us only 12 years, to prevent run a way climate change.

We couldn`t have a more powerful scientific argument for pushing ahead with renewed vigour to deliver a circular European bioeconomy.

That it has to be a circular bioeconomy is crucial and very important to realize for if it isn´t we will quickly exhaust our planet's limited biological resources. We need to also think of the cascading use principle, and put effort in making waste streams valuable for other uses, and for the recycler.

The need for circularity within the bioeconomy is the right thing to do scientifically and if we don´t do it we will rightly finding ourselves receiving criticism from the environmental movement.

The environmental movement  needs to be key ally of ours in delivering the circular bioeconomy - not least because they can often reach the public in ways that politicians, the Commission and industry cannot.

From budgetary perspective there are significant financial opportunities to support the bioeconomy from both Common Agricultural Policy funds and from the Cohesion fund.

The CAP is one of the oldest EU policies, founded in 1962. CAP funding represents contractual opportunities for various land uses, and business opportunities for rural business, as well as investments in infrastructure and renewable energy, and not least the restoration of destroyed forest or agricultural systems. With the right choices the Member States can boost, restore and make more resilient their ecosystems, so that some can be sustainably used to provide feedstock for bioeconomy.

Likewise Cohesion Policy provides funding for projects in Member States to improve competitiveness, to improve the state of the environment, to decrease differences between regions.

And to be fair to the Commission, the Member States have plenty of flexibility with these funds so if there is a will to support a circular bioeconomy this should be possible.

To conclude, now is the time to deliver the circular bioeconomy.

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