An exclusive interview with Marc Palahì, director EFI

Marc-Palahi-photo

“To ensure a transition to a sustainable bioeconomy we need to create a coherent, ambitious, long-term predictable and well-coordinated international bioeconomy policy framework which involves all key sectors and disciplines and socio-economic geographic scales (cities, regions, countries, Europe)”. Marc Palahì, director of the European Forest Institute (EFI), talks to The BioJournal.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

 

How can European forests contribute to climate policy targets?

Our forests, covering around 40% of EU land, are the most important biological infrastructure in our continent! They are the largest terrestrial carbon sink, with an overall climate change mitigation effect of 13% of the total EU carbon emissions, more than all the emissions coming from the entire agricultural sector in Europe. But that is not the only reason why they are crucial to address climate change mitigation. Our forests are also the most important source of non-food-non-feed renewable biological resources. Resources that with the current science and technology can be transformed into a totally new range of innovative bio-based solutions (configuring the emerging forest bioeconomy) that can substitute petroleum-based products and non-renewable materials like steel or concrete. Recent EFI studies estimate that with ambitious policies and the right incentives our forests and forest-based products could have an overall climate change mitigation effect by 2050 of around 25% of the total EU carbon emissions. Such contribution would be possible based on a range of actions including afforestation programmes, improved forest management and the substitution of fossil-based products by forest-based solutions in sectors like construction, chemicals, textiles, etc.

Furthermore, let’s not forget the important role of forests and forest management in “adapting” to climate change, via its effects on biodiversity and the support of soil and water resources. At the end bioeconomy and biodiversity are the two sides of the same coin. They mutually reinforce each other and we need integrated policies and integrated forest management that recognised that.

The world is placing great hopes in the development of materials, chemicals and fuels made of renewable resources. Are these expectations realistic?

Yes, advances in science and R&D and modern biorefineries (so called bioproduct mills) open up significant opportunities for the bio-based sectors as well as for the bio-transformation of sectors traditionally relying on fossil-based and non-renewable sources.  A new generation of bio-based solutions: chemicals, food ingredients, bioplastics, composites, pharmaceuticals, textiles, construction products, or bioenergy can start substituting petroleum-based products. However, we need still predictable long-term policies and a new scale of investments in research, infrastructures, etc, to transform such technological realities into economic realities.

 

Can you give an example (or examples) of a product that people might see as a game‐changer? If that product is not available now, what would be the probable timeline for it to be widely available?

There are many examples:

  • Nanocellullose, an ultra-strong material that surpasses steel in strength can be used to make products like flexible screens, printed electronics and batteries or high-resistant clothes.
  • Carbon fibre based on lignin offers great opportunities in the future to replace steel in industrial applications like the car industry.
  • Wood-based dissolving pulp can be used to produce environmentally friendly high-quality clothes to replace cotton, which has a high environmental footprint, or synthetic fabrics made from oil, such as polyester.

But let me emphasise one product, which due to its potential environmental impact deserves special attention: the new wood engineering products available for the building sector. Just remember that the building sector in Europe represents 42 percent of energy consumption, 50 percent of material use, 33 percent of waste and 35 percent of CO2 emissions. New wood engineering products (for example cross-laminated timber modules) allow the construction of multi-storey wood-frame buildings using industrial prefabrication methods. It is a new way of building which results in less use of materials, less waste generation, and allows moving from demolition to deconstruction once the building ends its life. Wood construction also has the greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions and primary energy use during the life cycle of the building. Moving towards wood-based construction in Europe would allow the building sector contribute to climate policy targets (reducing carbon footprint), energy efficiency and reduce waste and raw material use (as aimed in the EU circular economy Strategy).

In Brussels, there is a lot of debate regarding the need to introduce in Europe a Green Public Procurement system to support the demand for bio-based products, as well as made in the United States with the Biopreferred program. What do you think about this?

GPP represents around 15-20% of the European GDP and therefore should play an important catalysing role in transitioning from a fossil-based economy to the bioeconomy. GPP is also an important communication and awareness rising tool to demonstrate that bio-based solutions outperform fossil and non-renewable approaches. Furthermore, GPP can be crucial in bringing cities, which at the end host 80% of the population and are responsible for around 80% of the energy consumption, closer to the bioeconomy.

 

An important role in supporting the 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 reconcile economy and ecology?

Economy and ecology, bioeconomy and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin. The coin that represents a sustainable future. For 200 years we have relied on a fossil economy that has delivered growth, technological development and social progress but has generated the largest market failure and environmental externality of our history: climate change. A sustainable future requires that our economy prospers within the renewable boundaries of our planet. Such paradigm shift requires governance systems and policies that recognise that nature and biological resources are the basis for sustainable growth. This requires that the economy and the environment are seen and politically framed and mutually reinforcing each other. A bioeconomy is needed to protect biodiversity since the fossil-economy is a main threat to biodiversity. But biodiversity is also needed for a resilient and sustainable bioeconomy. Biodiversity is a necessary investment for the bioeconomy. Market-based instruments, like a carbon prize or payments for environmental services can help in such direction.

Furthermore, education, communication and rising awareness campaigns are crucial to explain to an increasingly urbanised society that addressing climate change and ensuring sustainable development of future generations requires building a new economic system which is a based on a new relationship with nature. Where nature is the prosperity engine of a bio-based society. Such paradigm shift needs to be integrated especially by primary education.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential and other environmental and socioeconomic impacts of biomass uses depend on a large range of allocation decisions for heterogeneous material and energetic pathways. From your point of view, what kind of governance framework is required to ensure that the transition to a bioeconomy is a sustainable one?

First of all, it is important to highlight that a transition from 200 years of a linear fossil-based economy towards a circular bio-based economy requires also a paradigmatic transformation also in terms of governance and policies.

Nowadays, we have at European and national level a series of diverse and often competing policy visions and frameworks. The protection of the environment is opposed to economic prosperity and vice-versa. Such dichotomy is accentuated by a highly urbanised society that has increase its distance to nature and the understanding of renewable biological resources and the functioning of ecosystems.

To ensure a transition to a sustainable bioeconomy we need to create a coherent, ambitious, long-term predictable and well-coordinated international bioeconomy policy framework which involves all key sectors and disciplines and socio-economic geographic scales (cities, regions, countries, Europe).

We need an over-arching bioeconomy strategy which is a new fundamental pillar of a new “European project” which looks forward for a modern, innovative and sustainable Europe taking a leadership role in the world.

A key component will be a well-functioning and innovative bioeconomy single market to address market and regulatory failures and provide incentives, e.g., via single market rules including public procurement and standardisation of new bio-based products. This should as well attract the scale of investments that will be necessary to transform a technological reality that the bioeconomy is today to a new economic reality.

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