“The shift to a European bioeconomy is now irreversible”. An exclusive interview with John Bell

John Bell at Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin (25 November 2015)
John Bell at Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin (25 November 2015)

“The shift to a European bioeconomy is now irreversible and this transition will now accelerate after the COP21”. John Bell, Director of Bioeconomy Directorate of the European Commission, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this long exclusive interview, the man who is leading the implementation of the European bioeconomy addresses different topics related to this new industrial revolution based on renewable biological resources.

“The sustainability of the bio-based solutions – Bell says – will have to be constantly demonstrated, communicated and debated with stakeholders if we want to convince policy-makers and embed the bioeconomy across Europe. This can happen at different levels. The European Commission is devoting resources to better study the overall biomass available in Europe and its uses, and to assess the efficiency of the bio-based solutions through life-cycle analysis.”

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Mister Bell, the Bioeconomy Investment Summit, which took place last November in Brussels, leaves many proposals on the table. What are, from the point of view of the European Commission, the five priorities emerged?

If we consider the conditions that can allow the bioeconomy to go “from niche to norm”, I believe several points stood out during the discussions. They deserve our full attention as we can consider that the shift to a European bioeconomy is now irreversible and that this transition will now accelerate after the COP21. 

1. Public support remains essential for the uptake of the Bioeconomy. The Bioeconomy starts with public support to research and is followed by important investment to support and de-risk the uptake, in particular by helping the financing of biorefineries. The Summit has underlined that much has been done already at the EU level to support research and innovation in the Bioeconomy. We need to maintain and push forward with our ambition. We need to bring the bioeconomy down to earth, linking it to practical opportunities in important sectors of the economy like agrifood, marine, cities, or key industries where technology will deliver a sustainable future.

2. Many speakers stressed that an important barrier to investment was the unpredictability of the regulatory environment. We therefore need to ensure a stable regulatory environment for investors. Our regulatory framework needs to be clear and ambitious about the role of biomass in developing the bioeconomy. The Renewable Energy package announced in the Energy Union will notably be important in reconciling profitability and sustainability into one clear vision for investors.

3. At the same time, beyond the stability for the measures that gave a boost to bioeconomy, we also need enhanced coherence across all policy fields relevant to the bioeconomy. For example, the bio-based solutions providers competing for the same feedstock than the energy uses are complaining about unfair competition. How a level–playing field within the Bioeconomy should be organised remains an important issue to address. Moreover, ensuring fair competition between fossil-based and bio-based solutions remains a challenge. The competitiveness of the bio-based industries is linked to this challenge. Our climate and energy policies are essential in ensuring a level–playing field between emerging and incumbent industries.

4. Linked to the previous points, we must strive to demonstrate the benefit of the Bioeconomy, while engaging with stakeholders. The sustainability of the bio-based solutions will have to be constantly demonstrated, communicated and debated with stakeholders if we want to convince policy-makers and embed the bioeconomy across Europe. This can happen at different levels. The European Commission is devoting resources to better study the overall biomass available in Europe and its uses, and to assess the efficiency of the bio-based solutions through life-cycle analysis. But making the case also must happen on the ground: via pilot-plants, via new business cases, via the innovative collaboration of different actors and uptake in the rural areas. The development of national and regional bioeconomy policies is a very promising sign.

5. Finally, we overall need a strong stakeholder’s engagement, for the co-creation of a responsible bioeconomy to be well understood by and beneficial to all the citizens.

Much has been said regarding the need to attract investment and to support start-ups. What will the Commission concretely do on this front?

Much is already underway as investment is one of the priorities of the European Commission. As Vice-President Katainen notably stressed during his intervention, the Bioeconomy can and will benefit from the Investment Plan of the Commission.

The European Fund for Strategic Investments will provide an important window of opportunity for de-risking investment in the long-term infrastructure of the Bioeconomy. The Metsä bio-mill that received financing from the EIB and EFSI was a good example of such opportunities.

The Capital Market Union should also be instrumental in strengthening access to equity financing which is essential for the development of start-ups.

And we are also working closely with the EIB to assess the need for additional instruments and advisory services that would be dedicated to the needs of bio-based industries.

On the issue of circular economy it has seemed that there was no sharing of ideas from the stakeholders. You said that the “bioeconomy is the biological heart of the circular economy”. How does the European Commission intend to anchor the concept of bioeconomy within the circular economy policies?

The package includes a chapter on biomass and bio-based products, as well as a commitment to assess the contribution of the 2012 Bioeconomy Strategy to the circular economy. In so far as the circular economy deals with biological waste, the bioeconomy is a part of the circular economy. All initiatives that can serve the bioeconomy moving forward should be seized. The circular economy package represents an opportunity to push for a better valorization of biowaste streams to the benefit of the Bioeconomy.

That being said, I don’t think the Bioeconomy can be reduced to a part of the circular economy only – the two concepts are interlinked in the areas like waste. But the bioeconomy involves a paradigm shift across the whole economy. It is genuinely disruptive by envisaging to move beyond a fossil-based economy to a sustainable economy where carbon based production economy is progressively complemented by an economy whose production, consumption, valorisation and growth is based on smarter and sustainable use of renewable biological resources including waste. It envisages a new growth engine for the next economy that harnesses technology to open out innovative uses of biological resources for materials, energy, products and services in big key sectors of the European economy – such as agrifood, marine, cities, forestry, chemicals, plastics, pulp and renewable energy. It provides a new context for sustainable and globally competitive economic development. The circular economy interlinks with the bioeconomy but may not fully capture this ambition.

DG Research and Innovation is leading on the Bioeconomy Strategy within the European Commission. It is thus our role, in collaboration with all the services involved to make sure the Bioeconomy is fully imbedded in all policy initiatives of the Commission. We notably closely collaborate with DG Agriculture. And this has also been the case with our colleagues from DG Growth and DG Environment, who have the lead on the circular economy package.

The circular economy package is the step taking place currently. It does not mean the Commission’s initiatives will stop there. Continuous efforts are necessary to adapt the regulatory and policy environment to the Bioeconomy. As Vice-President Katainen underlined, the bioeconomy must also be considered from a long-term perspective. We will not achieve the full potential overnight and continuous effort to adapt our regulatory environment is necessary.

According to EuropaBio, but not only, the bioeconomy concept has to include all biology-based businesses, including pharmaceuticals and medical devices, like in the US. What do you think about this proposal?

By its very nature, the “bioeconomy” is legitimately associated to diverse definitions world-wide. The panel discussion in which Europabio participated rightly underlined that the bioeconomy has been an evolving concept.

It somehow originally came up as an answer to the question: ‘In which fields can we innovate thanks to advances in life sciences and biotechnologies?’ From this science and technology angle, health and so called “red biotech” were an obvious part of the definition. This has indeed tended to be the approach followed in the US. However, further questions and societal challenges have been recently driving the Bioeconomy concept, such as: “How can we innovate to sustainably produce and use our biological resources for food, energy and material uses, and move away from a fossil-based economy?”. In this sense, food and energy security, environmental sustainability and climate change have become major drivers of the theme.

This is the main rationale underlying the current definition used in the EU Bioeconomy Strategy, which is also much in line with most of regional or national Bioeconomy strategies in the EU. There are many bioeconomies, but the principle aim remains the same.

Many interventions have explicitly called for the adoption of a system of Green Public Procurement to support the demand for bio-products. In EU the public procurement rules regulate the procedure of buying (how to buy) and not the subject matter of the procurement (what to buy). Is it possible a change of these rules?

EU public procurement legislation provides for a neutral and objective legal framework to ensure the accomplishment of the Single Market within the EU. The modernised public procurement rules adopted by the EU in 2014 provide for new tools that contracting authorities may use in the public procurement process in order to include green, innovation and social considerations.

But it is up to the contracting authorities to decide whether they use the tools provided by the public procurement legislation in order to pursue ecological, innovation or social goals.

In theory, Member States are allowed to put in place national strategies or incentivising measures aiming at orienting the choices contracting authorities towards certain goals. These strategies or measures cannot however be contrary to the basic principles of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, in particular the principle of non-discrimination.

Commissioners Moedas and Hogan have stressed their commitment to work closely with EU member states and other relevant organisations to develop national bioeconomy strategies. How important are, from your point of view, the national strategies for the development of the European bioeconomy? Could Italy be penalized without its own strategy?

At the EU level, the Commission can work on many different policies that can contribute to the take-up of the Bioeconomy. This ranges from research and innovation policies, common agricultural and fisheries policies, single market rules including standardisation, industrial and environmental policies, energy and climate policies and so on. There are important synergies to capture between these policy fields.

But the Bioeconomy needs to become a reality on the ground, in the Member States and in the regions. An official strategy drafted by public authorities and in consultation with national stakeholders is a very important starting point. It is most often opening the room for dialogue between different parts of the administration and of the stakeholders. It is the start of the acknowledgment for the need of coherence between policies to favour the development at national level. The development of national and regional strategies we are witnessing is thus very promising.

It is also necessary because different parts of Europe need to think themselves how they best fit in the bioeconomy. There are ‘bioeconomies’ – plural – and not a one-size fits all ‘bioeconomy’ that can be rolled out everywhere. Each and every country or region has its own diversity, and this is the basis and the richness of the bioeconomy.

Drafting a strategy is in itself not what will ensure the uptake of innovative solutions. But it is an absolutely necessary step to start gathering stakeholders, to start thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of a region, and about how it could position itself to drive the change.

The Bioeconomy Investment Summit has had the merit of opening a thorough confrontation on the remaining hurdles to the development of the bioeconomy in Europe. How do you intend to pursue in the future this confrontation?

The identification of the hurdles and obstacles will be a continuous endeavor. The event gave the opportunity to some major bioeconomy stakeholders to voice their concerns and raise awareness on the major issues.

Addressing these obstacles will also require continuous work. In the relative short term, the Circular Economy package will promote a better valorization of waste. Furthermore, in 2016, we will take stock of the progress by reviewing the Bioeconomy Strategy. We intend to set the priorities that will favour more investment in the Bioeconomy. This could encompass a wide range of measures.

We will in the meantime pursue the dialogue with regions, exploring how synergies with structural funds can be achieved. And as already mentioned, we are currently working with the EIB to explore the possibility of a dedicated financial instrument or advisory services for the bio-based industries.

Next April the Netherlands will host the Fourth EU Stakeholders Bioeconomy Conference. Can you give us a preview of the agenda? 

The Bioeconomy Stakeholder conference will take place in Utrecht on 12-13 April 2016. The results of previous high-level events, e.g. the SCAR Foresight Conference, the Bioeconomy Investment Summit and the Global Bioeconomy Summit, will be used in the conference. It will converge to develop a ‘Stakeholders’ Manifesto for the Bioeconomy in Europe’: a roadmap and a shared commitment to shape the bioeconomy through collaboration and dialogue. We will do so together with representatives from all bioeconomy stakeholders: the scientific community, primary producers, industry, civil society and policy makers. The conference will provide an important input to the future orientation of the European Bioeconomy Strategy, which will be reviewed in 2016.


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