An interview with Marc Palahí, director of EFI. “We must place the bioeconomy at the core of the EU Industrial, Climate and Sustainability Agenda”

Marc Palahi at the European Bioeconomy Summit in Helsinki

“We need an ambitious and long-term bioeconomy policy framework to enable the creation of a Bioeconomy Single Market. The framework needs to ensure predictability to investors and companies, enhance risk-taking capacity and define priority pathways to move towards a low carbon economy, where a circular bioeconomy becomes a growth engine”. Marc Palahí, director of the European Forest Institute, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this long and exclusive interview, released after the Second edition of the European Bioeconomy Summit, he talks about the next steps which are needed to place the bioeconomy at the core of the EU industrial, climate and sustainability agenda.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Mister Palahí, the Bioeconomy Investment Summit, which took place last December in Helsinki, leaves many proposals on the table. What are, from the point of view of the European Forest Institute the five priorities emerged?

I think the five clear priorities emerged from the Bioeconomy Investment Summit are:

  1. Narrative

We need to create a compelling bioeconomy narrative to engage our increasingly urbanized societies, which are more and more disconnected from nature and its biological cycles. A science-informed narrative that is based on the need for a new economic paradigm. One that ensures that prosperity takes place within the renewable boundaries of our planet.

  1. Long-term policy framework

We need an ambitious and long-term bioeconomy policy framework to enable the creation of a Bioeconomy Single Market. The framework needs to ensure predictability to investors and companies, enhance risk-taking capacity and define priority pathways to move towards a low carbon economy, where a circular bioeconomy becomes a growth engine (measures should include effective carbon price and the cancellation of subsidies for fossil fuels).

  1. Bring together the Circular Economy and the Bioeconomy

The bioeconomy in the future will need to provide solutions for major industrial sectors to move from fossil-based and non-renewable materials to renewable biological solutions (as part of the solution to fight climate change and other environmental problems). However, biological resources are renewable but not unlimited. This means that their use and transformation needs to be intelligent, efficient and sustainable. In this context, the circular economy and the bioeconomy “concepts” need to be brought together as the basis for the new economic paradigm. They are two concepts that mutually reinforce each other and cannot succeed in becoming mainstream without each other.

  1. Investments

Investments are key to catalyzing a transformational change in our economy. Moving from the current linear fossil economy towards the future circular bioeconomy requires massive investments to transform the current technological reality that is the bioeconomy now, into the future economic reality. Massive Investments do not only mean investments for massive projects, as many bioeconomy companies face challenges in finding the correct scale investments for their level of operations.

  1. Forests

Forests are our most important biological infrastructure and the main source for non-food non-feed renewable biological resources in Europe. Sustainable forestry as basis for a bioeconomy also implies understanding and providing other important ecosystem services like biodiversity, water and soil. Recognizing the role of forests for a sustainable European bioeconomy is fundamental, and sustainable forestry provides great possibilities to create synergies between bioeconomy and biodiversity due to the long-term nature of forests. Investing in biodiversity and our natural capital is a key priority, to help ensure the resilience of forest resources and combat climate change.

The summit brought together in Helsinki some of the most important representatives of the world bioeconomy and financial institutions. The absence of the leadership of the European Commission has not however gone unnoticed. What is your opinion on this?

Yes, it was unfortunate that due to several reasons, participation by high-level representatives from the Commission was not possible. But I know the Commission appreciated very much the event and they will use the outcomes and discussion points from the Summit in preparing the new EU Bioeconomy Strategy. The European Forest Institute will continue to be at the disposal of the Commission to support a science-informed dialogue and policy framework to build a successful bioeconomy. We are truly committed!

Much has been said regarding the need to support R&D investments, new skills and smart regulations enabling new products to come rapidly to the market . From your point of view, what has the European Commission concretely to do on this front?

Two main issues. First, during recent years the European Commission has made very important and necessary investments in creating the R&D Bioeconomy knowledge base. In the future, such research investments still need to continue, expanding the scope from technology-oriented projects to cross-disciplinary research sustainability questions (explicitly addressing the Paris Agreement targets and the Sustainable Development Goals) as well as bioeconomy markets research and relevant socio-economic issues. Furthermore, we need proper Bioeconomy Higher Education to develop many of the skills needed to realise the bioeconomy potential (which requires interdisciplinary education approaches).

But second, very clearly stated in the Bioeconomy Investment Summit, it is time to bring the bioeconomy to a political dimension. It is time to create the Bioeconomy Single Market. It is time for a long-term policy framework that provides the right incentives and attracts the right scale of investments (not always an issue of scale but also flexibility) to transform the technological reality and emerging business opportunities that the Bioeconomy represents into a future mainstream economic reality. Esko Aho proposed 10 action points to bring the Bioeconomy from a niche to a norm. I suggest all interested to watch his speech.

Former Swedish Prime Minister, Göran Persson, said “We have talked so much about bioeconomy. We now need to take the next step forward!”. What is from your perspective the next step which is absolutely needed?

Place the bioeconomy at the core of the EU Industrial, Climate and Sustainability Agenda and create the Bioeconomy Single Market. Use the bioeconomy as the political and economic project that Europe needs to look forward and transform challenges (climate change, etc) into new business opportunities, for Europe to lead…

The Helsinki Summit showed once again how Finland and the Nordic countries are leaders in the bioeconomy. What do you think are the strengths of the Nordic bioeconomy? And what is the role that the forest sector can (and want to) play in the European circular bioeconomy?

The strength of Nordic bioeconomy relies on the most important biological infrastructure we have in our planet: our forests. I believe that Nordic countries, due to their special relationship to forests, are well positioned to understand the bioeconomy in a broader sense. Forest-based bioeconomy thinking, in my view, leads to seeing the bioeconomy more as an economic paradigmatic transformation. A forest-based bioeconomy has a unique opportunity to build a long-term synergistic relationship between economy and biology to ensure prosperity within our planetary boundaries Empowering nature as the main prosperity engine of our economy supports inclusive growth and provides ecosystem services to urban areas. At least I see this as the great opportunity.

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