contribution on sustainable bioeconomy

We need a fundamentally different economy!


by Jenny Walther-Thoß, WWF

As the world population grows, arithmetically, the available land area per person is becoming smaller and smaller, while at the same time the demand for fossil raw materials such as mineral oil continues to rise. The substitution of fossil raw materials by renewable resources for a transition towards a bioeconomy, can only succeed if, all in all, we produce and consume less.

Foto: © Eva-Maria Lopez

In this debate, to many stakeholders the bioeconomy is the silver lining to keep our growth-oriented economic system running with minimal adjustments. The rationale is: A pinch of efficiency combined with slightly more recycling, enables us to substitute fossil carbon, which industry is currently largely dependent on, by renewable resources without a need to fundamentally change consumption patterns and lifestyles.

The “cornification of the landscape” has become a symbol of misguided biofuel subsidies, and has moved the debate in the energy sector forward. Whereas representatives of the chemical industry are becoming quite euphoric about new business sectors in the field of bioplastics.

The following points show very clearly that a mere substitution will not be feasible and that instead we need to have a serious and far-reaching debate in society about our resource consumption and consumer behaviour.

1. The available land area per person is decreasing while the global population is increasing (see figure).
2. The global demand for fossil raw materials such as crude oil is tremendous. It has continued to rise in recent years; in 2018 it reached 4.6 billion tonnes (1). This amount covers only 32% of our world’s primary energy demand. The transport sector alone consumes 2.5 billion tonnes of oil annually (2).

Within the framework of the bioeconomy, this amount is to be replaced by renewable resources. Yet, the global yield of vegetable oils in 2017/18 was approximately 600 million tonnes only; cereals (including corn and rice) amount to about 2.6 billion tonnes (3). Wood is an intensively used resource already for many economic purposes (e.g. energy, paper, building materials). A major upscaling of forest use for the bioeconomy is simply not feasible.
This comparison demonstrates clearly that the current consumption level and economic activity is not at all attainable through a substitution of fossil carbon by renewable carbon.

Biomass is scarce, and sustainably produced biomass is even scarcer – hence the fundamental priority is to orient a bioeconomy towards a significantly lower production and consumption, the extension of product lifespans and, overall, a reduced environmental footprint.

(1) Global crude oil consumption from 1968 to 2018.
(2) Global crude oil consumption by sector.
(3) Union for the Promotion of Oil and Protein Plants (UFOP) (2019): Report on Global Market Supply 2018/2019.

Jenny Walther-Thoß is an agronomist and was sustainable biomass and standards expert at WWF Germany.