It is hoped that the bioeconomy will become a driver for Finnish trade and industry within the next few years. Good foundations for that already exist if the measures following the alphabetic order Bio-Clean-Digi included in the government programme, can be effectively executed. But where could we find the initial A?
To find it, let us use, for example, the NABC elevator pitch (Need, Approach, Benefit, and Competition) that many people are familiar with. In this case, it is probably more or less clear to everyone what the Need is, even though it appears to be a little different for various stakeholder groups. All Europe needs sustainable competitiveness, jobs, well-being, exports, financing, innovations and learning of new things – in other words, everything that was highlighted in the bioeconomy strategy. The next A in the elevator pits is Approach, but other suitable words beginning with an A include attitude or a third one added value. I would claim what is actually needed is attitude, in combination with added value!
The starting points for the Nordic Countries in the European bioeconomy are good. We have the kind of green infrastructure that provides excellent opportunities, particularly for building a sustainable bioeconomy. It is an essential part of sustainability that all services of nature are exploited in a balanced way. In addition to materials and food, nature also provides well-being services, and it maintains the internal balance and reversibility of the green environment.
EU’s Regional Approach to Bioeconomy
The EU wants to examine bioeconomy as an operative entity based on local resources. There is no reason to compete with each other ‘playing the same cards’, since our starting points are very different. A good example of how the EU emphasises the regional viewpoint is the future report of the European Bioeconomy Panel published this autumn: Where next for the European bioeconomy?
The differences between regions may display themselves in various ways. The manifestations can include infrastructure, competence, co-operation forums and modes of operation, regional investments, financing solutions, application of legislation, cross-sectoral political support, and regional visibility, in other words visible promotion of one’s own resources within and outside Europe. On a breathtakingly long list, everyone can find the kind of approach that will allow them to take advantage of their own strengths. The report does not define the dimensions of regionality, but these are left to every actor’s own discretion.
The above-mentioned report proposes the idea of introducing a regional sustainability certificate (Sustainable Biomass Regions) and a relevant certification process for it instead of granting individual sustainability markings for bioceonomy products. A new kind of marking would introduce the sustainability of a regional entity as an added value into the markets. A concrete example: “This product comes from an area committed to achieving regional carbon neutrality and an 80% level in nutrients recovery within the target period of the next five years.” After having acquired a product like this, the buyer can ensure that it can also achieve a similar improvement in the environmental load in its acquisitions.
The importance of regional sustainability becomes more complex, when the bioeconomy is linked with the circular economy, or the requirement for a carbon-neutral recycling system. The regional sustainability of the bioeconomy is most dependent on where the raw materials being exploited grow or are generated or to what extent technology emphasising green values is available for use. The production of raw materials always takes place at the interface with nature, which is why it has the biggest environmental impacts in the production chain. As a last resort, the recycling system means that what has been taken from nature will be returned there without it causing any harm. Technologically and socially proficient interaction with nature is necessary at both ends of the cycle.
Cascading Means a Value Hierarchy of Materials
In the bioeconomy markets, special products with high value added, such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and special chemical industry products have the highest value. When faced with a threatening lack of biomaterials, we will have to negotiate how different kinds of products and services are prioritised through the political steering system and legislation of the EU. This will have a decisive impact on the valuation and price formation of bioproducts and services at various levels of productisation.
The material hierarchy (cascading) described above can be illustrated using a triangle, in which the level of added value increases when moving upwards, toward the tip of the triangle. For example, in forestry, the shortest refining chain, i.e. burning wood as it is, is at the bottom level. More refined uses of wood follow step by step as we move upwards in the triangle, and on top we find pharmaceuticals, special chemicals, etc. made of wood materials. In addition to this perspective of material use, the triangle can also be used to describe sustainability aspects. In the entity described in the triangle, the ecological sustainability becomes emphasised at the base of the triangle, near raw material production. Social sustainability is primarily formed in the various phases of the productisation levels, and economic sustainability culminates at the tip. The volume market is 100-1000 times larger for material at the bottom of the triangle than at the top. But relation is symbiotic between the bottom and the top. Large volume at the bottom supports large and multiform material flows towards the top.
A balanced management of this hierarchy would be very important right now. Europe should be able to ensure the sustainable use of our resources and, at the same time, access to global bioproduct markets with products of high added value. This requires that the ownership, agreement and other power relationships between the levels of productisation are skilfully managed, whether operating at a regional or national level within Europe. No region should fall into an isolated biomass producer, whose added value products and the market benefits with them drift elsewhere and into other hands. Furthermore, no area within Europe must end up in an excluded position. This is in nobody’s interest, since ecological sustainability erodes immediately when the decision-making powers are too far removed from the source. At the moment, building product chains with added value requires a strong attitude and multidimensional belief and trust in the common good.