Making forests the focus of global bioeconomies

Indonesia's community-based forest management systems are aiding the production of goods that feed into the country's growing bioeconomy, such as honey, here being harvested from the trees of West Timor. Nanang Sujana, CIFOR
25 October 2018

On 11 October, the European Commission launched a new strategy to create a comprehensive bioeconomy – a ‘biosociety’ – and ultimately a carbon-neutral future.

The strategy centers on waste reduction, ecosystem protection and a 100-million-euro fund to incentivize private investment in the continental bioeconomy, particularly in later phases when finance is needed to help commercialize bioeconomy products: everything from makeup and dietary supplements to bioplastics and cleaning supplies, as long as they are biomass-based.

In light of this, a recent gathering of science and policy experts at the Center for Development Research in Bonn, Germany, explored the bioeconomy’s advancement in countries around the world, and the role of forests therein.

Providing resources ranging from cellulose to education and ecotourism, as well as carbon sequestration and climate regulation, “forests are the biggest asset to any bioeconomy,” said Marcus Vinicius da Silva Alves, director of the Brazilian Forest Service.

As national and international bioeconomies grow and compete, how will forests be of use – and be protected – in the process?

‘Bioeconomy’ began entering the global lexicon in 2006 as the idea of using natural resources as primary input for food, materials, chemicals and energy production (as opposed to petroleum and fossil fuels), and escalated in 2012 when the European Commission put forth its first iteration of a bioeconomy strategy. Critically, the conversation around the term emphasized the need for science and knowledge to guide such a switchover.

In the most recent valuation from 2015, Europe’s bioeconomy turned over 2.3 trillion euros, 4.2 percent of Europe’s total GDP. A third of this comprises products from forests, which cover a third of Europe and sequester 13 percent of its anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, increasingly more governments are putting their heads toward mapping out their own bioeconomic futures too, and spotlighting forests in the process. Many plans are ambitious but nascent, caveating their lofty targets with the realism that wood and coal will still support the energy sector for some time. Indonesia, for instance, aims to use forest resources to reach food, water and energy sovereignty by 2045, said Nur Hygiawati Rahayu from the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning; currently, the country is the world’s largest exporter of coal energy.

As the global population grows, ages and urbanizes, the bioeconomy must keep stride with changing demands, particularly for food and fuel. However, somewhat paradoxically, if the bioeconomy is to succeed, it must also guide these consumption patterns to become more responsible and sustainable.

A recent policy brief co-authored by the event’s organizer and bioeconomy research pioneer Jan Börner, who is a senior associate at the Center for International Forestry Research and professor at the University of Bonn, stated that China, the U.S. and Europe have the highest demands for imported non-food biomass products. In turn, they have the power to shape the growth of other countries’ biomass industries, and the landscapes that underpin them.

More than 92 percent of Uruguay’s land, for example, is used for biomass production, yielding agro-industrial goods that account for 70 percent of the country’s total exports, namely beef, cellulose from eucalyptus and soy. Given this demand, the country’s developing bioeconomy strategy focuses heavily on ways to integrate forests and livestock, as well as intensify and increase value-chain efficiency in order to conserve what forests they have.

In a similar situation, Brazil has also increased its integrated crop-livestock-forest (ICLF) systems in the last decade. Land tenure is crucial to locals adopting and investing in such sustainable new systems, said da Silva Alves; in Indonesia, an extensive legal framework for community-based forestry management is handing over government lands to communities for use and production, ideally achieving the same.

Yet, a bioeconomy is not synonymous with a sustainable economy, and these go-green schemes need to detail science-based ways optimize land and resource use; recycle more from waste-intensive products such as sugarcane and swine; and substitute inefficient use of wood and charcoal biofuels with other forms of renewable energy. Doing more with less must be data-based.

“The bioeconomy must be sustainable,” said da Silva Alves, “otherwise it will be a normal research-based economy.”

To learn more on this topic, listen to our Landscape Voices podcast: Germany’s take on the global bioeconomy, from definition to dandelion

RELATED

“Alternative pathways” to climate change mitigation stir controversy

Success factors for sustainable bioenergy

Brazil: Its forest capital and a promising future in the production of food, fiber and energy