The possibilities that the bioeconomy can provide, become visible in the practical applications. However, in order to contribute to a socio-ecological transformation, the revision of the policy framework for bioeconomy uses is needed.
At the second conference of the project “Bioeconomy in the Light of Sustainability”, which took place on November 10th and 12th, 2020, everything revolved around examples from bioeconomy practice. To what extent can companies and research projects as pioneers contribute to the success of the bioeconomy in the context of a socio-ecological transformation – and where do they run the risk of being mere green washers of a non-sustainable economy focused on growth ? Participants from environmental and development organisations, scientific institutes and specialised authorities explored this question.
The current state of the world’s ecosystems is very worrying. Arable land and forests are constantly overexploited and biodiversity is rapidly dwindling. According to the World Biodiversity Council IPBES, industrial land use is the main driver of the current species extinction. In the context of the bioeconomy, the conference intensively discussed the possible contribution to solving these problems through the transition from a fossil-based economy to one based on biological raw materials; as well as whether a change in the political framework is not more necessary. The organisers, denkhausbremen and BUND, had invited relevant practioners to present their projects in short impulses and to exchange ideas with the participants on the questions above.
In the first keynote, Jan Peters , Managing Director of the Succow Foundation, presented the idea of paludiculture. On wet and rewetted peatlands, reeds, cattails or peat mosses are harvested, which are processed into bio-based products such as building or insulation material. In this way, the special wet peatland biotopes can be preserved contributing at the same time to climate protection – in conventional grassland use, drained peat soils emit large quantities of climate-damaging greenhouse gases. Key for those biodiversity-preserving forms of agriculture is the capacity to supply significant quantities of biomass for the bioeconomy.
Christiane Baum from the Westphalian Cultural Landscape Foundation, presented the second project: “Energy crops and biodiversity in the Münsterland”. There, concrete measures such as perennial flowering strips in cereal fields or fava-corn mixtures for use in biogas plants are being tested. Combined with approaches of precise tillage and non-cultivation seasons to preserve prairie birds, agriculture and biodiversity conservation can be reconciled. The speaker emphasises that the success of such measures ultimately stands or falls with the acceptance of the farmers. The design of the measures must fit well into agricultural processes and they need to be economically viable.
Christine Rasche is researching the conversion of raw materials for the bioeconomy at the Fraunhofer Center for Chemical-Biotechnological Processes. She describes her work using the splitting of lignin, the processing of rapeseed and an extraction process that obtains chemical intermediates from beech wood. She explains, that next to the innovative chemical processes, excellent valorisation concepts are key to an upscaling of those processes and their commercialisation. The required ground work is time consuming and often underestimated.
In his keynote speech, Christian Sörgel, Mercer Zellstoff- und Papierfabrik Rosenthal GmbH, presents the possibilities of a pulp mill to process basic materials such as cellulose, hemicellulose, carbohydrates, tall oil and lignin. The pulp mill becomes a biorefinery for further material bioeconomic applications. New and more efficient processes for separating the components promise new value chains and greater independence from market fluctuations regarding pulp.
With his Cradle to Cradle idea, Michael Braungart pursues the goal to make the recycling of deteriorating product parts (e.g. shoe soles, brake pads, car tires) biologically useful through a particular design of the manufacture processes. He proposes to completely rethink the world and to initiate fundamental changes in many areas. Agriculture, he says, must be practised in such a way that additional carbon from the atmosphere is stored in the soil every year. He is critical of bioenergy use and the import of biomass from the Global South.
Jürgen Hack , Managing Director of SODASAN Washing and Cleaning Agents, presented his company’s efforts to produce detergents and cleaning agents without petrochemicals on the basis of plant-based raw materials. The chemical company has succeeded in obtaining more than half of its biological resources from organic farming and is self-sufficient in covering 60 % of its energy consumption. Overall, the bioeconomy cannot simply be about renewable raw materials, but about an eco-oriented production of these natural resources and a holistic view of sustainability.
Ralf Pude (University of Bonn) and Margit Schulze (University of Bonn-Rhein-Sieg) emphasise that promising regional solutions for sustainable biomass production already exist. In experimental fields, they test the cultivation of perennial crops with tall and fast-growing plants. These plants bind a lot of CO2, require few nutrients and at the same time provide important ecosystem services such as soil rest, humus formation, erosion control and habitat for insects In addition to an adequate supply of the amount of biomass, it is important to process it in a targeted manner for higher-value purposes. Reliable markets are indispensable for the acceptance of farmers.
According to Michael Carus, nova-institute for Political and Ecological Innovation, the core problem for the climate is not the carbon itself, but the fossil carbon that is extracted from the soil and burned. At the same time, the possible volume of bio-based carbon might be limited by nature. However, technology could enable carbon extraction directly from the atmosphere, with the required energy generated by renewable energies. The extent to which this can be achieved in an ecologically sustainable and socially acceptable manner is then critically discussed.
The field of practioners does not lack ideas. However, if we do not change the framework and completely rethink the world, many of these ideas will fail because of the existing market regulations. How strong the wind of change is blowing through the bioeconomy, whether it will be a stiff gust or a gentle breeze, this question remained open in the discussions.
The project “Bioeconomy in the light of sustainability” is funded by: