John Bell is the Healthy Planet Director in DG Research and Innovation (R&I). He leads R&I transitions on climate change, bioeconomy, food systems, environment, biodiversity, oceans, Arctic, circular economy, water and bio-based innovations. This includes harnessing investments for Horizon Europe, the Circular Bioeconomy and the EU Bioeconomy Strategy. In this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista, he talks about the bioeconomy strategy 10 years after its first launch and the ecological transition at EU level.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Ten years ago, the first European strategy on the bioeconomy was presented. What do you think its biggest impact so far has been?
With the adoption of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy in 2012, we aimed to radically change the EU’s approach to the ways we produce, consume, process, store, recycle and dispose of biological resources. The strategy had 5 main objectives:
- ensure food and nutrition security;
- manage our natural resources sustainably;
- reduce the dependence on non-renewable, unsustainable resources;
- mitigate and adapt to climate change;
- and create jobs across Europe.
Today, these objectives remain relevant, but in the updated EU Bioeconomy Strategy in 2018 we broadened the focus on the regional deployment of the bioeconomy across Europe and on increasing our understanding of ecological boundaries.
In the last decade, we have managed to establish the bioeconomy as a cross-cutting policy, going beyond research & innovation.
On European level, the bioeconomy policy is being co-created, involving several Directorate Generals of the Commission; close interaction with Member States, for example in the European Bioeconomy Forum; international cooperation in the International Bioeconomy Forum or the Global Bioeconomy Summit and its Advisory Council; stakeholder involvement and youth engagement.
The success of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy has encouraged Member States to develop their own national bioeconomy strategies. Ten EU Member States currently have a dedicated national bioeconomy strategy in place (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain), while six more are in the process of developing their respective strategies (Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia).
The impact of the Bioeconomy Strategy was also seen on the profile of ocean research and innovation, and for putting the blue dimension more to the centre of attention. Examples include the rise of the area of blue biotechnology, the strengthened international cooperation on marine research and innovation in the different European sea basins, the key role of research and innovation in understanding marine ecosystems and the need for their protection.
Local development in rural areas, the circular bio-economy and sustainable forestry are among the key objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. The new CAP 2023-2027 will be implemented by EU countries with CAP strategic plans; in these plans, countries could describe how they are planning to use CAP support to scale up the deployment of the circular and sustainable bioeconomy.
Further impact has been achieved by strengthening and scaling up the bio-based sector, mainly through the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking and its successor partnership, Circular Biobased Europe (CBE JU) , a €3.7 billion partnership between the EU and the Bio- based Industries Consortium. The CBE was recently launched to shift industrial production processes from non-renewable fossil raw materials and minerals to circular bio-based ones.
The Commission’s Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy and its Bioeconomy Monitoring System are building up the knowledge base on key issues and are tracking the bioeconomy’s progress towards sustainability.
How happy are you with the climate policy that the European Union has come out with?
The European Green Deal is a historic shift for European policies, putting climate, environmental and sustainability considerations at the heart of our policy agenda.
It takes a long-term, truly strategic approach, with the overarching goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050, and GHG emission reductions of 55% by 2030.
This calls for transformative, deep, urgent, and far-reaching changes across the entire society and across all parts of the economy. This is extremely ambitious and makes Europe a climate front-runner, and the first continent to become climate-neutral.
Already in 2018, the EC put forward its strategic, long-term vision for a climate-neutral EU by 2050. One of its 7 strategic building blocks towards a net-zero GHG economy was to reap the full benefits of the bioeconomy and to create essential C sinks, in particular to
- Sequester and store C in agricultural land, forestry, wetlands
- Substitute C-intensive materials in the building sector and through sustainable bio-based products
- Create new business opportunities
- Shift to climate-friendly farming systems and agroforestry
- Unlock the potential of aquatic & marine resources including algae
- Substitute fossil fuels in power generation.
It makes me proud of the EU’s response to the climate emergency, which promotes high-ambition in tackling the crisis. I am also pleased how the EU champions the science-based approach in climate policymaking, with policies being firmly anchored in the state of art scientific evidence such as the landmark reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that sets the boundaries for policy-making.
I am also glad that we have taken a more balanced and more integrated approach to climate action, moving well beyond mitigation.
There is more focus on adaptation to climate change as well as on enhanced synergies with other policies such as biodiversity-related ones, to maximise the co-benefits and reduce any unwanted trade-offs, making our interventions more effective. The task that the EU has set itself is extremely challenging. European research and innovation will have a tremendous role in navigating and accelerating this transformative Green Deal agenda.
As part of its European Green Deal, the European Commission aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union to zero by 2050. How optimistic are you about the chances of getting this goal achieved?
As the EU’s climate goals (both 2030 and 2050) are now enshrined in the Climate Law, I am quite confident that there is a solid basis for these targets being achieved.
With the mega (20 legislative proposals) legislative package adopted by the Commission in the course of 2021 to deliver on the increased 2030 ambition as the first step of the journey, we are well positioned to make good on these promises. But a lot will depend, of course, on the inter-institutional negotiations and whether the level of ambition is maintained in the first place.
Then, a lot will hinge on mobilising all actors across the society to become part of the transition process. This includes business, finance, civil society as well as institutions and governance frameworks as we need to move beyond “business as usual”.
It will be challenging, as all systemic changes are, but there is a very compelling case behind. The transformation to climate neutral society is expected to lead to better, greener and fairer future, with a modernised, more competitive and more resilient economy, and with healthier, more equal and happier society. On the contrary, if we don’t act, the science warns that the consequences can be dire.
In that sense, I think Europe simply cannot afford to miss out on its climate targets. The Green Deal must guide the recovery process from COVID-19 as it is a unique chance to invest in a better future.
The green transition will require sustained research and innovation efforts to develop, deploy and scale up the necessary technologies and solutions. These new solutions must be affordable and must avoid unwanted lock-in effects.
The bioeconomy will have an important role to play in this endeavour to make sure that that ecosystem sequester and store carbon in ecosystems and that we store carbon in sustainable bio-based products that at the same time substitute materials with high greenhouse gas emission intensities, for example in the building sector. These ideas have been developed in the recent communication on Sustainable Carbon Cycles. The EU land sector is to be climate neutral already by 2035. Data from the JRC show clearly the challenges to both reverse the recent decline in the carbon sink strength in European forests and sustainably supply biomass – both are needed to reach our mitigation targets.
Many of the tools and technologies needed to hit the climate 2030 target are already available and must now be deployed at scale, quickly. But in order to reach climate neutrality by 2050, almost half of emissions reductions will need to come from technologies that are, at the moment, only at demonstration or prototype phase.
A forward-looking, mission-oriented, and impact-focused research and innovation agenda will be needed to enable the Green Deal transformation.
This is why Horizon Europe, the EU’s latest research and innovation framework programme, will devote at least 35% of its €95.5 billion budget to climate action.
This will build on the previous work of Horizon 2020, including the recent €1 billion European Green Deal Call that is focused on producing results in the short- and medium-term, which directly address the main sectors of the European Green Deal.
And this is why we have launched five EU Missions, four of which are dedicated to the Green Deal – on climate adaptation, oceans and waters, climate-neutral and smart cities, and healthy soil.
These missions will showcase the ability of research and innovation to catalyse long-term, systemic change, harnessing the power not only of technological, but also social innovation.
Research and innovation will also support a just transition, encouraging citizen engagement, and empowering individuals and communities to actively participate in the Green Deal transitions.
If all these elements come together, I am confident that climate neutral Europe can be achieved.
The European Green Deal is a broad roadmap: EU cares also about biodiversity and forests, agriculture and food, green cities and the circular economy. What is the role the bioeconomy can play in all these areas?
Indeed, the European Green Deal is very broad and ambitious: becoming the first climate neutral continent, halting pollution and restoring biodiversity, and caring for healthy citizen both in urban and rural areas. The bioeconomy can support the European Green Deal on all these objectives.
But it cares for even more: that the transition to a green and climate neutral Europe happens in a just and socially fair manner.
And this is exactly where the bioeconomy becomes so important: the EU bioeconomy strategy is an enabling policy framework that can help countries and regions to design concrete pathways in their transition.
The German project BioökonomieREVIER for instance prepares the Rheinland coal region for the abandonment of the lignite mining pulling all strings together: from developing new opportunities for farmers and foresters, over biotech solutions to education programmes, to finally create a sustainable circular regional economy.
The BE-RURAL project looks in particular how the huge potential of biological resources can be used to design bio-based solutions for rural employment and sustainable growth.
We have supported the BIOEAST countries to develop bioeconomy strategies and enhance inclusive and sustainable growth (The Central-Eastern European Initiative for Knowledge-based Agriculture, Aquaculture and Forestry in the Bioeconomy – BIOEAST – offers a common political commitment and shared strategic research and innovation framework for working towards sustainable bioeconomies in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries: Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia, editor’s note).
Another example is the New European BAUHAUS initiative – using wood in construction helps to store carbon in long-lived products that can be useful also at the end of their life according to the cascading principle introduced by the Forestry Strategy. Wood-based materials and green environments can not only support our goal to reaching carbon neutrality, circularity, and sustainability goals, but also create jobs especially in rural regions, and help to make cities greener and more aesthetically pleasing.
In the sustainable and circular bioeconomy only wood and non-wood products from sustainable sources are used, and new business models created.
New bio-based products can upscale biomass or upcycle what would otherwise be wasted, or new bio-based processes can help to recover precious materials from waste streams. Such projects are funded for example in the new Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertaking (CBE JU).
These are crucial elements in a circular economy and help reduce the pressure on land and biomass resources, and thus ultimately help us to reach our climate targets and objectives to restore biodiversity.
What are the next steps for the European bioeconomy?
We are finalising the EU Bioeconomy Progress Report ‘European Bioeconomy policy: stocktaking and future developments’ in which we look backwards to see how well we advance with the activities that we planned, but also forwards to develop first ideas of what should be strengthened or what new initiative can we envisage to make the potential of the EU bioeconomy to support the European Green Deal.
The report is currently discussed internally, so it is too early to talk about details, but it is clear – also from the feedback received from the many stakeholders who we involved in the process of writing – that the bioeconomy has indeed a unique role of ‘building bridges’ between environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Therefore, one possible area where more can be done is to look at where it might be difficult to meet different objectives as the same time – what can then the response of the policy be?
There was a recent communication on ‘Sustainable Carbon Cycles’ which describes well the role of the bioeconomy in supporting Europe to meet the climate mitigation role, together with other instruments such as carbon farming. In this communication we propose a new initiative that we name ‘Integrated Bioeconomy Land Use Assessment’ – which aims at identifying the implication of regional, national, and EU-wide policies on land and biomass use and assess potential conflicts and bioeconomy solutions.
We are also planning research projects in the Horizon Europe cluster 6 on “Food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment that will help us understanding better how bioeconomy solutions and pathways can look like and how they can be deployed.
Later this year we will hold a major bioeconomy conference where we like to present the Bioeconomy progress report and discuss with people from governments, academia, industry, society how next steps for the EU Bioeconomy Strategy in support of the European Green Deal could look like.