The updated EU bioeconomy strategy. An interview with Marc Palahí, director EFI

Marc Palahi at the European Bioeconomy Summit in Helsinki

“We need to put emphasis in ensuring that the areas and actions identified in the new Bioeconomy Strategy are strategically integrated in other European policies and Programmes to ensure coherence, scale and synergies; CAP; Industrial Policy, European Investment Bank portfolio, Strategic Partnership for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement, etc.” To say it – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Marc Palahí, director at the European Forest Institute. He talks with us, on his way to China, just after the publication of the updated EU bioeconomy strategy.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

What is your opinion with respect to the updated bioeconomy strategy? Does it meet your expectations?

Yes, I believe that it’s a very good document, well balanced and with a transformative vision and strategic framework for actionIt is important that now it clearly connects to the Circular Economy and also reflects on recent key developments like the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals

In addition, I am very happy to see that key forest based opportunities are explicitly identified, but especially that you perceive a “forest way of thinking along the document as the sustainability of the bioeconomy is framed within the ecological boundaries of our ecosystems and biodiversity and ecosystem services become central to its development.

The updated strategy proposes three main action areas: strengthen and scale-up the biobased sectors, unlock investments and market; deploy local bioeconomy rapidly across Europe; understand the ecological boundaries of the bioeconomy. Would you add others?

First of all, developing a Bioeconomy Strategy for Europe is not an easy task! Each of us would emphasis or add specific aspects, but most of the issues can be addressed within these three broad areas. To me the challenge is how now to bring these areas into action at European level. So, instead of adding other areas, we need to put emphasis in ensuring that the areas and actions identified in the new Bioeconomy Strategy are strategically integrated in other European policies and Programmes to ensure coherence, scale and synergies; CAP; Industrial Policy, European Investment Bank portfolio, Strategic Partnership for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement, etc.

In addition, I would place important attention to support cities and regions to incorporate the bioeconomy in their agendas. But it is identified in the strategy.

The only additional aspect, I would have stressed more is the importance of communication, of creating a compelling narrative to engage with society at large, with our increasingly urbanized society and young people: who are the future.

What do you think about the EUR 100 million Circular Bioeconomy Thematic Investment Platform mentioned in the updated strategy? How could it really de-risk private investments in sustainable solutions?

I would need to learn more about it in order to answer. But as you remember in the last Bioeconomy Investment Summit (Helsinki, 2017), it was clear that de-risking private investments was identified as a key challenge. It was also highlighted that we need to attract massive investments to transform the bioeconomy into an economic reality but this does not mean to focus only on massive projects. There is a great diversity of bioeconomy companies and projects that need to be supported. I hope such Platform can address such diversity effectively.  

An important role in supporting the circular bioeconomy is played by public perception, which is often more interested in the cost of a product rather than in its ecological footprint. How is it possible to make the bioeconomy more attractive?

Well, markets are not perfect and they need to be regulated in order to address the negative externalities they generate. We need to internalize the environmental costs of fossil products into their product prices. This year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, William D. Nordhaus, argues that the most efficient remedy for the problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions would be a global scheme of carbon taxes that are uniformly imposed on all countriesSuch measure is probably the most effective single measure to unlock the potential of a sustainable bioeconomy too

The updated strategy mentions also the concept of urban bioeconomies. What’s the role of the forest industry in this area?

Forests and forest based solutions are called to be the backbone for future sustainable cities. As the world continues to urbanize, cities need to play a leading role in fighting climate change while providing new homes, schools and other buildings. We have not yet built 50% of the urban fabric which will be required globally by 2050. But the construction sector is currently dominated by materials like concrete and steel, whose production is not environmentally friendly and their production is a main contributor to climate change and other environmental problems.For instance, the use and construction of buildings in the European Union is responsible for 35% of the EU’s carbon emissions, and 40% of its energy consumption while uses 50% of the raw materials.

In that context, the forest bioeconomy provides new engineered wood solutions: the only significant construction material that is renewable and can be grown sustainably. Using wood in construction is one of the most effective carbon sequestration and capture technologies we have, still not prominent in the ongoing discussion on the need for negative emissions to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals. If we replace concrete and steel with wood, we can reduce the carbon footprint of a building by around 50%.  Furthermore, another way to improve the sustainability of our cities is to plant trees and urban forests. Trees can cool cities by between 2C and 8C. If you plant trees near buildings, it can cut air conditioning use by 30%, and reduce heating energy use by 20 to 50%. 

From where would you start tomorrow morning to strengthen the connection between economy, society and the environment?

I am answering this interview on my way to China, where I will be for a week presenting and discussing with Chinese organizations why the bioeconomy is key to transform our world towards a sustainable path and how to act together. China produces half of the world’s textile fibers, a third of the plastics and more than half of the cement and steel produced globally. Understanding better Chinese economy and creating an informed dialogue on common global challenges and opportunities is crucial from a European and global perspective. 

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