EU Science Hub

Future transitions for the Bioeconomy towards Sustainable Development and a Climate-Neutral Economy - Knowledge Synthesis Final Report


The 2018 EU Bioeconomy Strategy aims to develop a circular, sustainable bioeconomy for Europe, strengthening the connection between economy, society, and environment. It addresses global challenges such as meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations and the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement. A circular, sustainable bioeconomy can be a core instrument for the Green Deal in the post-COVID-19 era, making the EU more sustainable and competitive. In this context, the EC (Joint Research Centre in collaboration with DG Research and Innovation) created an ad-hoc external Network of Experts (NoE) through individual contracts to contribute to the EC’s Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy with forward-looking analysis needed for exploring possible scenarios towards a sustainable, clean, and resource-efficient bioeconomy, with a focus on climate-neutrality and sustainable development. This first work package concerned knowledge synthesis and foresight. The post-Brexit EU27 bioeconomy employs ≈17.5 million people (≈ 9% of its workforce) and generates € 1.5 trillion (≈ 10% of its GDP) when the tertiary bioeconomy sector (bio-based services) is included. To analyse, assess and monitor the bioeconomy’s sustain¬ability, interactions with fossil, mineral, renewable systems as well as bioeconomic contributions to ecosystem services are important, considering dynamic interlinkages and substitution effects. The bioeconomy is the only system providing food, feed, and eco-system services, i.e. for those there is no substitute. Sustainable, affordable, and secure biomass is available from EU sources in the medium- to longer-term, meeting demands for existing and emerging uses (e.g. bio-based material) by 2030. There is enough sustainable EU biomass to contribute to all sectors by 2030, and probably beyond, as well as to bring organic carbon back to soil. To ensure sustainable supply, not only residues and wastes are relevant, but sustainably sourced agricultural and forestry feedstocks, and feedstocks from recovering and restoring marginal and degraded land. Options for managing land and forestry systems for biomass supply that lead to a better carbon balance depend on many factors and have biodiver¬sity, other environmental and socio¬economic trade-offs, all needing consideration. The bioeconomy includes sustainable food systems which can increase resilience. For all of this, change is needed: The EU Bioeconomy Strategy intends a shift from the substitution logic towards circularity and sustainability. This requires governing the sustain-ability of the bioeconomy for which the SDGs are the normative framework. The challenge is to implement sustainability governance of the bioecono¬my to safeguard against negative impacts while fostering positive options. The weak integration of sustainability governance of forests into EU policies and vis-à-vis non-EU countries is a hindrance to achieve the objectives of a circular, sustainable EU bioeconomy, which may be addressed in the upcoming new European Forest Strategy intended to promote the bioeconomy while respecting ecological principles favourable to biodiversity. In preparing for a post-COVID-19 era, the bioeconomy should be a priority for the European economic recovery support: promoting short domestic sustainable bioeconomic supply chains brings resources back to the real economy, creates (rural) employment and favours CO2-neutral development, e.g. through biorefineries and land-based Carbon (C) sequestration with respective agricultural and forestry investments. The synopsis of all EU bioeconomy drivers and trends for 2030 and 2050 (assuming a successful implementation of a sustainable, circular EU bioeconomy, i.e. not for “business-as-usual”) indicates that bioenergy would become less relevant, while biomaterials and ecosystem services will gain significantly, strengthening the EU competitiveness and creating employment. Biomass for construction materials, fibre, food and feed, furniture, and textiles will grow, and use of innovative biomaterials such as bio-based chemicals, lubricants, and bio-based plastics which offer high value added per mass unit will increase. Despite the impressive potential of wind and solar, biomass will provide grid balancing services, and help sectors difficult to be decarbonised through electricity (aviation, heavy duty and maritime transport, high-temperature industrial processes). There is a complementary role of bioenergy and electricity until 2050. Yet, a sustainable bioeconomy is not the only possibility to shape the future, nor the only vision on how to make the world a better place. Over the last decades, several drivers (alternative food, non-biomass renewables, Power to Anything (PtX), socio-economic patterns) emerged which may become trends in the 2030 - 2050 horizons. These competing drivers could significantly affect opportunities for implementing the bioeconomy. Some of these drivers could be disruptive, but some are potentially synergistic to the bioeconomy. The SDG framing for the bioeconomy requires integration. With the European Green Deal, important steps of integration are underway regarding various EU policies, especially biodiversity, circularity, climate change, food systems, forest protection and restoration, and renewable energy. The bioeconomy needs to be part of this integration, for which its inclusion in the EU post-COVID-19 recovery plan would be a critical step. In addition, domestic EU land use – especially in rural areas – and foot¬prints implied outside of the EU need to be integrated, considering the multiple opportunities for rural livelihoods, employment and innovation, both within the EU and outside. Circularity requires integration in terms of recycling and re-use of residues & waste flows for which biorefineries are key, but as mentioned above, there is need for integrated governance as well. The bioeconomy in Europe is not a single one – in Northern EU countries forestry domina-tes, while large proportions of the bioeconomy in the South West concern fibres, bio-based textiles and high-quality food. There is growing interest in the blue bioeconomy in Northern and Southern Europe. This diversity implies not a weakness but a strength: instead of focussing on e.g. corn (as the US), forest (Canada), palmoil (Indonesia), soy (Argentina) or sugarcane (Brazil), the diversified EU bioeconomy is more resilient to changes in feedstock supply, market dynamics and technology innovation. The term transformation is used frequently throughout this report, building on the UN 2030 Agenda which calls for transformative change. The guiding principle of being transformative is acknowledging that trade-offs and possible synergies are subject to societal decision-making, not to a neoliberal economic logic alone. Market aspects are one component of decision-making, but not necessarily the dominant one. This requires to re-define the SDG framing of sustainability: Instead of linear box-by-box representation, the SDGs are ordered according to levels. The base is the biosphere which sustains society, which in turn is served by the economy. This is the fundament for deciding how to live within planetary boundaries and align the economy with societal needs, not vice versa. This is reflected in the Just transition concept of the European Green Deal. Transformation also requires working with people in active roles, considering their capacities to think and speak about the transformation (future literacy). This is why social aspects are of high importance, for which a new term is suggested: BioWEconomy. The 2018 EU Bioeconomy is a sound base to start from – its further development and implementation should aim at becoming a BioWEconomy and include respective targets. Still, even such a bioeconomy will not make all of us secure, nor protect against all dangers. There is a large variety of risks mankind has to face, and most of these are interlinked so that a linear scale may be misleading (e.g. tipping points in the climate system). A circular, sustainable, and transformative BioWEconomy can mitigate several of the severe and likely risks, especially food and water crises, climate change, migration, and social instability. A circular, sustainable, and transformative EU BioWEconomy could become a role model for transforming other parts of the economy as well, helping to make the world a better and safer place for all. Finally, this report presents open questions relevant for further research: climate impacts of biomass, future-proof bioenergy systems, competing drivers, social factors, and sustainability governance. Investing in research on these questions will improve the understanding and implementation of a circular, sustainable, and transformative BioWEconomy, not only in the EU, but globally through knowledge-sharing networks.