Policies aimed at accelerating the bioeconomy and investments in increasing forest-based production have been criticised unusually harshly in recent weeks. Our bioenergy-based energy and climate strategy has also come under criticism, in addition to which the bioeconomy has been reproached for low value-added production and the slow entry into the market of new products.
However, investing in the bioeconomy – especially in Finland and right now – is by no means a fool’s errand. It would be short-sighted to ease off the accelerator just as the research and development efforts of past years are beginning to materialise as industrial investments and growth in production volumes.
Focus off energy
Efforts to promote the bioeconomy have not focused on energy for the last ten years. The priority in funding research and development was shifted to researching new products and materials and developing production even before the end of the last decade. The Strategic Centres for Science, Technology and Innovation, which were founded at that time but sadly discontinued, are now bearing fruit.
Most importantly, new bioeconomic production is being born in Finland and relying on Finnish raw materials.
Most importantly, new bioeconomic production is being born in Finland and relying on Finnish raw materials. Investments in both entire production plants and new production lines are also in part the result of ten years of intensive research and development. The plans for these are based on the research done by the Strategic Centres for Science, Technology and Innovation and – perhaps even more importantly – the top-level experts produced by the centres are now working for the businesses that are making bioeconomic production grow.
Energy production will also be an integral part of the bioeconomy in the future, but low energy prices are a good reason to look for growth in bio-based products instead of energy. At the moment, bioeconomic growth comes from investments and growth in mechanical wood processing and the pulping industry. In the future, large volumes of the raw material required for energy production will originate from the by-products of processing. When as much of the by-products that can be processed have been processed, it makes sense to still use the remainder to produce energy or as raw materials for transport fuels. Finland is unlikely to become a trendsetter in solar energy, but that is what we already are in the efficient and competitive use of bioenergy.
Development of a circular economy of vital importance
The Natural Resources Institute Finland is even now working on a number of exciting research projects: By-products of the rapidly growing wood products industry, such as sawdust, are being turned into feed protein, and there are plans to introduce fish farms based on recirculating aquaculture at pulp mills. The Natural Resources Institute Finland and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland will be publishing a Bits and Biomass roadmap in the next week, which will explain how digitalisation can accelerate the bioeconomy and make it more efficient.
It is clear that the bioeconomy cannot solve the global raw material and energy supply challenge on its own – our planet is simply too small for it to be possible, for example, to replace fossil fuels with biomass. Short-sighted overexploitation of field and forest resources is destructive to both the production capacity of soil and the climate. Developing a circular economy is also vital for ensuring that the Earth’s resources are able to meet the needs of the growing population. Being able to make the fossil fuel economy more efficient is also crucial, as global energy supply will unfortunately still largely rely on it come the middle of the century.
Increasing the bioeconomic output by EUR 10 billion a realistic goal
The bioeconomy has not yet reached its cruising altitude, but it already contributes EUR 60–70 billion to our national economy every year. Even if we were not able to increase the degree of processing in bioeconomy products at all, each one million cubic metres of wood processed would give a boost of more than half a billion euros to our economy each year. Increasing the consumption of wood by 15 million cubic metres would therefore increase the bioeconomic output by almost EUR 7–8 billion per year. This would help to improve public finance sustainability and enable investments in forest conservation and more diverse management and use of commercial forests as well.
I am an optimist; it will be possible to increase the degree of refining and improve resource efficiency of forest-based bioeconomy.
I am an optimist; it will be possible to increase the degree of refining and improve resource efficiency of forest-based bioeconomy. Energy consumption in pulp production, for example, will drop by 10–20% over the next couple of decades, releasing biomass for the production of materials. An increase of EUR 10 billion by 2030 is a completely realistic target. If the global economy continues to develop favourably, the goal could be reached even sooner. It makes sense for Finland to continue investing in the bioeconomy and increasing not just the added value of production but also production volumes. This is why we should also think about whether we should allocate more bioeconomy research and development funding to projects of large corporations as well.