By Peter Gerhardt
The fossil era is coming to an end. Mankind will increasingly have to rely on renewable raw materials. The term bioeconomy has become established for this economy fed by biological resources. Forests get under pressure: their wood is considered to play a decisive role in the supply of raw materials for the bio-based future. Yet, the forest ecosystems are already being exhausted by the global demand for wood for fuel, construction material, electricity production or pulp for paper production.
The natural limits of our planet are progressively entering the core of the political debate: Climate change is moving millions of people around the globe. With regard to the global climate, Brazil’s burning rainforests have long since ceased to be a national issue; they are also an issue for the global community. Even the dwindling biodiversity has arrived in the mainstream and the »Save the bees!« referendum is mobilizing 1.8 million voters in the state of Bavaria.
At the same time, large parts of the population are propelled by unrestrained market forces, leading to an growing economisation of all areas of life. As a result, the primacy of politics is faltering because it is unclear how today’s profit economy can actually be effectively contained. Another consequence are the dramatically rising social centrifugal forces that have set in motion an yet open-ended global struggle for distribution, which is increasingly destabilising the international order. Apparent certainties such as social peace or democracy suddenly feel strangely fragile in industrialised countries such as the Federal Republic of Germany.
The allocation of planet earth is multiple
The struggles for fair access to arable land and soil are fierce. Future debates about climate, biodiversity or bioeconomy are conducted in such separate silos, that each “planned” the earth for their purpose, creating a grotesque situation of multiple allocation: while the daily news report that a scientist from ETH Zurich wants to plant an additional 900 million hectares of forest to combat climate change, other experts want to establish 1700 million hectares of biodiversity protection areas. These plans are in direct opposition to the the future land use of the earth envisioned by bioeconomy strategists : The Earth is to be converted primarily into arable land for biomass. Ultimately, these scenarios are in competition with one another. Therefore, democratically legitimate decisions about what should happen when and where with the global land area are necessary.
Clearcut logging in the forest for the bioeconomy
In the quest for raw materials such as fibers, oils, starch and wood for a future bioeconomy, the focus shifts more and more towards global forest ecosystems. Forests are expected to make a decisive contribution to the future supply of raw materials to the economy. Yet, the forest ecosystems are already exhausted by the global demand for wood for fuel, construction material, electricity production or pulp for paper production. The expansion plans of the pulp industry on its own, envisaging an additional production capacity of over ten million tons worldwide, exceed any reasonable measure in countries like Brazil. The industry’s intention to turn wood into the basic material for bioeconomic processes and to assemble it into entirely new materials, raises the question whether the forest can withstand this increasing demand at all.
The forest ecosystem is not only a source of timber, but also an area for recreation and a habitat of great importance for nature conservation and biodiversity. The resulting conflict of interests are inherent to the different forest functions and should be negotiated democratically. Forests that are supposed to grow for climate protection cannot at the same time supply raw materials to the industry. It is evident that the forest will not be able to provide huge amounts of wood for a bioeconomy. Safeguarding the ecological services of the forest ecosystem for the benefit to us and future generations, means that the raw material potential of the forest is dwindling considerably.
Bioeconomy – the new world formula?
According to the German federal government, the bioeconomy corresponds to a new world formula that can resolve many contradictions: Fossil and mineral raw materials are being replaced by biological resources and feed an economy that enables a good life to all people while caring for both climate protection as well as biological diversity in regards to the planetary boundaries. Too good to be true? The bioeconomy will only be able to keep its boastful promises if resources are used much more carefully and frugally. The development and environmental associations have the same demands. The necessary transformation will only succeed if fossil raw materials are not simply replaced by biological ones. This in turn requires changed consumption patterns, closed cycles as well as material cascades and multiple use. Contrary to this, the current economic model “Zalando, Amazon & Co.” wants to delight us with fast fashion, fast food and senseless consumption. Taken to its logical conclusion, responsible bioeconomy would therefore also shake the foundations of our economic system.
So far, there has been little sign of this in official government strategies, neither in Germany nor at the European level. In the case of agriculture and forestry, it is precisely those land use methods that got us into the crisis that are supposed to save us: The federal government’s bioeconomy strategy relies on industrial agriculture and forestry, which are rightly criticised for extinction of insects, the death of spruce trees and nitrate contamination of groundwater. The progressive commodification of nature would thus be enshrined. Of course, the government apparatus is not a unified bloc, and there are also cautionary voices. But a well-oiled industry and large-scale agriculture lobby has the upper hand and is driving forward the “industrial bioeconomy” as promoted by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.
This is also reflected in the research landscape. At national and European level, politics and industry have already launched generously funded support programmes that point more towards of biotechnology than organic farming. Terms such as agroecology, ecological forestry and global justice are hardly to be found in the federal government’s official research catalogue. It fits the picture that the industry-oriented Bioeconomy Council is attacking the Genetic Engineering Act aiming at watering it down. The former advisory body to the federal government wants more free play in the gene laboratories. The precautionary principle is to be thrown overboard in research into new gene-surgery methods such as CRISPR/Cas. Industrial forestry is also positioning genetically modified trees as a source of raw materials for a bioeconomy.
Bioeconomy is everyone’s business
Important decisions for policy and research are largely made exclusively in industry-friendly expert circles. With a few exceptions, even the German environmental and development associations are hardly involved. The large welfare and social organisations are completely sidelined in this important debate on the future. It is above all the citizens with little money who cannot buy themselves a favourable starting position for a future without oil, gas and coal. A broader social majority will only accept change if it is fair. A broad social debate is therefore urgently needed on the framework conditions in which the bioeconomy should take place in the future. However, this dialogue can only succeed if policy-makers provide sufficient resources and opportunities for participation, including for critical voices.
The bioeconomy can also be regarded as a camouflage trick from the PR department – industrial giants who are facing acceptance problems are being greenwashed. Since there is no generally accepted definition of bioeconomy, Monsanto & Co. could provide their controversial products with a green veil of invisibility: Genetically modified corn would become a bioeconomic crop production.
It is to be feared that especially the poor of the global South will have to pay the bill for an increased biomass demand. In an industry nation such as Germany, Bioeconomy requires biomass imports from all over the world. Already today, the “footprint” of every German citizen reaches as far as Brazil or Indonesia, where global consumer goods giants drive out small farmers without guaranteed land rights for toilet paper or chocolate bars. If, for example, the chemical industry alone replaces mineral oil with biological raw materials in the future, the pressure on human rights and ecosystems in the global South will increase dramatically.
Industrial forest plantations are not forests
From a global perspective, forest plantations are becoming increasingly important suppliers of wood and are therefore a possible foundation of a bioeconomic raw material strategy. First of all, it is important not to equate these industrial landscapes to forests. An eucalyptus plantation in Brazil features a biodiversity comparable to a parking lot, and hence has nothing in common with the original forest vegetation. In South Africa, pulp plantations are installed on natural grassland sites not all suitable for the planting of trees. In addition, marginalised population groups such as landless people and subsistence farmers are displaced from their habitats by forest plantations.
Yet the basic assumption of the bioeconomy, to use forest raw materials efficiently and innovatively, is initially a good idea. Products of biological origin are usually easier to integrate into natural cycles and leave behind fewer problematic pollutants at the moment of disposal than petrochemical materials. In the future, the wood pulp lignin resulting from pulp production, instead of simply being combusted for process heat, could be used as a valuable raw material for construction materials. Wood densification is a promising bioeconomic technique that could allow the substitution of steel or concrete.
However, the danger of the new eco-era euphoria is the neglect of ecological principles in the forest management prioritising wood production only. The consequences of economic interests taking control of the forest are currently witnessed by anyone in Germany: »new« forest deaths make the headlines. The spruce, formerly the bread tree of forestry, has become the problem tree in times of climate change. Nonetheless, influential forest officials continue to insinuate to rely on forest management that is far from nature. Even the federal government got caught up in this tale, and plans to guarantee the supply of raw materials for a future bioeconomy with non-local drought-resistant tree species.
The damage in the forest caused by an increased demand for wood biomass is already seen in electricity production using bioenergy. Electricity giants such as RWE, Uniper and Vattenfall have started to feed their old coal-fired power plants with additional wood and are on a global shopping spree. The EU recognizes this madness as a climate protection measure and in many European countries new wood power plants are springing up like mushrooms. The wood pellets for these plants come mainly from the USA, where, according to the findings of US environmental protection groups, valubale hardwood forests are cleared instead of protected. Europe’s entry into bioeconomic energy production leads to the destruction of forests elsewhere and is bought with a high price and serious consequences. The Environmental Paper Network, an international association of environmental organizations, assumes that more than ten million tons of additional wood will have to be felled for industrial electricity production alone in the future. In addition to Europe, Japan and South Korea are also increasingly using wood as a fuel for their power plants.
The global wood and pulp giants have recognized the signs of the times and smell another big business in the wake of the bioeconomy debate. There are many indications that Finland could become a pioneer in the wood-based bioeconomy. “Bioeconomy is the solution”. That is the ambitious promise of the forest group Metsä. With its Finnish competitor UPM, it sounds as boastful: “We lead the forest-based bio industry into … an exciting future”. On the one hand, the corporations are hoping for new marketing opportunities for products that are already being produced – such as cellulose, which could now also be the raw material for bioplastics. On the other hand, the industry is investing in parallel in so-called biorefineries, which break down wood into much finer particles than a pulp mill and thus make it interesting as a raw material for the chemical industry. The Finnish environmental protection associations are alarmed because in the future up to 30 million cubic meters of wood could additionally be felled for bioeconomic processes on site. That would be an increase in the Finnish timber harvest of almost 50 percent. In Germany, the first pilot plants such as the biorefinery in Leuna are in operation, too, and international multinationals such as UPMKymmene are waiting in the wings as investors for plants with larger capacities.
Ecolabels are not a solution
It is likely that the bioeconomy industry will respond to possible criticism with voluntary certification initiatives. Already today, barely credible eco-labels such as the “Sustainable Biomass Program” are flourishing in the bioenergy sector. The past shows that even the sustainability certificates for wood, paper, palm oil or soy could not prevent the expansion of industrial plantations at the expense of natural forests. Almost all of these labels work according to the same pattern and pretend to involve those affected and NGOs appropriately in a multi-stakeholder process. De facto, in most cases the industry enforces its economic interests. The development and environmental associations are therefore well advised not to be lead astray by this label strategy in the area of bioeconomy.
The economic order of the future should contribute to a just society within planetary boundaries. The bioeconomy will also have to be assessed against these criteria. The debate must leave the expert groups and back rooms and into the middle of society. The development and environmental associations can make an important contribution to this, but trade unions and welfare associations should not be sidelined here either. Ultimately, important questions about the future are being negotiated when it comes to the bioeconomy – and they concern everyone.
Demands of the environmental and development associations
■ The consumption of resources should be reduced significantly in all areas of the economy. Such a reduction is the only sustainable way to meet the demand for biological raw materials without further destroying biodiversity and the global climate..
■ The discussion about bioeconomy should be opened up to citizens and civil society organizations.
■ A significant proportion of the billions of euros in research funding that the German government is expected to continue to make available in the future for the promotion of the bioeconomy should be used for research into alternative concepts beyond the industrial market and exploitation logic..
■ The promotion of the bioeconomy should not result in genetic engineering processes such as green genetic engineering being promoted or introduced through the back door and using public funding.
■ Bioeconomy scenarios that rely heavily on the import of biomass should be fundamentally questioned.
1 »StudiederETHZürich: Afforestation and most effective climate protection«. Report on tagesschau.de from July 4, 2019.
2 S.LeSaoutetal.:Protectedareasandeffectivebiodiversity conservation. In: Science 342/6160 (2013), pp. 803805.
3 European Environmental Paper Network (EEPN): Mapping pulp mill expansion. Risks and recommendations. 2015.
4 Declaration by German environmental and development organizations on the bioeconomy policy of the Federal Government of January 16, 2019 (https://denkhausbremen.de/wpcontent/uploads/2019/ 01 / NGOErkl %C3% A4rungBio %C3% B6konomie.pdf).
6 A.Petermann: NewGJEPreportslamsproposalstoprolong capitalism using trees & green profit schemes, posted on July 18, 2019 in Global Justice Ecology Project.
7 These are the demands of the German environmental and development associations that have come together in the »Civil Society Bioeconomy Action Forum« (www.aktionsforum-biooekonomie.de).
8 EnvironmentalPaperNetwork (EPN): “New maps launched to track the expansion of the biomass industry”, published Sep. 3, 2019.
9 Metsä: Thenewwaveofeconomy: Fromfossiltobiobased (www.metsagroup.com/en/Campaigns/IntelligentMetsa/intel ligentfibre / Bioeconomyisthesolution / Pages / default.aspx).
10 UPM: Visionandpurpose (www.upm.com/aboutus/visionand purpose /).
11 Sustainable Biomass Program (https://sbpcert.org).
This text was also published in the critical agricultural report.