The bioeconomy is set to play a significant role in the green transition, as it facilitates a shift from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based on renewable and biological resources. The fact that it has already gained traction in numerous sectors and industries shows that it is possible to build great products, services, businesses, and careers in a much more sustainable way.
We are now at the start of a new decade, and there are strong signs that the bioeconomy will be one of the key drivers that shape it. Along with circular economy principles, the bioeconomy is a focal point for EU strategy discussions and will be central to many sustainable development efforts. For this reason, the Nordic Council of Ministers is proud to coordinate the bioeconomy policy area under the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region.
Hopefully, this report on bioeconomy trends will encourage policy-makers across the Baltic Sea Region and Nordic Arctic to take stock of the benefits that the bioeconomy has to offer and support its growth with a clear focus on sustainable development.
The report was commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers, in its role as Policy Area Coordinator for Bioeconomy in the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region, and funded jointly by Interreg Baltic Sea Region. Nordic Sustainability managed the project in collaboration with Nordregio.
In recent years, the Nordic Council of Ministers has focused on developing the sustainable bioeconomy through numerous initiatives and a Nordic Bioeconomy Strategy, which brings together environmental, social, and economic ambitions for a more sustainable future. This has opened up exciting and significant new opportunities for an economy based on renewable resources. For example, the recent report State of the Nordic Region 2020 shows how the Nordic region has become the European leader in terms of renewable energy share per capita.
The evidence shows that society is slowly but surely embarking down the path towards more sustainable options. The bioeconomy will enable more effective and innovative use of resources and create new industries and opportunities.
Our analysis of recent trends shows that the development of the bioeconomy presents a range of opportunities – and some challenges, too. The Nordic Council of Ministers is committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and to addressing the climate crisis and therefore supports the Nordic goal of becoming the world’s first climate-neutral region. We cannot achieve this without replacing fossil fuels with biological resources to a far greater extent, and without ensuring a sustainable supply of renewable biological materials.
Nordic Council of Ministers
This report identifies ten bioeconomy trends in the Baltic Sea Region and Nordic Arctic. The aim is to equip policy-makers with an in-depth understanding of where the bioeconomy is heading and help them to navigate its potentials and pitfalls.
Of the ten trends, five are specifically part of the bioeconomy and show us some of the most prominent ways in which it develops. The other five are macrotrends – more overall societal or technological trends that influence the development of the bioeconomy. To provide context for these trends, the report analyses a number of conditions that support the bioeconomy, as well as the expected impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This report’s findings are based on a review of available literature on the bioeconomy, 25 expert interviews, four stakeholder workshops, and a survey of more than 200 bioeconomy stakeholders. A total of 350 bioeconomy professionals across the region participated in the process.
The report covers 14 countries surrounding the Baltic Sea Region and Nordic Arctic, namely Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Iceland, Germany (Northern part), Greenland, Norway, Poland, Russia (North-Western provinces), Sweden, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands.
The five trends presented in this report were identified as significant and developing areas for the future of the bioeconomy in the region. The trends were selected for their potential for value generation on each of the three bottom lines: social, environmental and economic.
There has always been a strong business case for utilising “leftover” or waste materials from industrial processes to make new products. Respondents see considerable untapped potential in using bio-based “sidestreams” for new or for more valuable products, and they consider this trend as the safe bet for improving the economic, social, and environmental bottom line of the bioeconomy.
Biofuels have received considerable investment and political support due to their potential to replace fossil fuels. However, the respondents’ comments indicate that opinion on biofuels is divided. Some see them as a necessary part of a transition from fossil fuels; others assert that biofuels are a dead end that risks diverting biological resources from other industries in which they could generate greater value.
Branding based on a unique story about its origins has for centuries been used to add value to a wide range of products. Local branding offers the opportunity to find a market niche for bioeconomy products, particularly food, both locally and globally. Survey respondents rate this trend highly, with the overall second-highest value generation potential and the highest potential for creating social value. Perhaps the most striking finding is that respondents see this trend as the one that can fulfil its potential the fastest since it requires little to no research or infrastructure development.
Algae and seaweed can grow at several times the pace of terrestrial plants and are gaining attention as useful inputs for industries as diverse as energy and human food production. Some algae have a very high natural oil content, which makes them ideal for producing products ranging from cosmetic oils to biofuels. This trend has significant potential, particularly in terms of environmental impact, but it is still at an early stage. Respondents acknowledge the potential to create more biomass without increasing the competition for land. However, they see it as a slow starter, and few respondents believe that this trend will reach its full value potential within the next ten years.
Alternative and new sources of proteins for food and animal feed are part of a relatively new field, and research is still being conducted in many areas. Protein-rich plants such as legumes and grasses, as well as insects and seaweed, are among the raw materials that have the potential to replace meat for human consumption and imported soya for animal feed. New protein sources perform well in the survey, primarily due to strong expectations among respondents of the environmental benefits of shifting to new protein sources.
The respondents generally believe that these trends have the potential to boost the economic, social, and environmental bottom lines substantially (see Figure 1). However, with the exception of the local branding trend, respondents believe that the trends are expected to generate only about half of their value-creation potential in this decade (see Figure 2).
The bioeconomy is not developing in a vacuum. The potential of an economy based on the sustainable sourcing of biological resources is highly dependent on wider societal and technological trends. Five macrotrends that will influence the development of the bioeconomy have therefore been identified.
Digitalisation can provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities and influence the bioeconomy in several ways: resources can be more efficiently grown, transported, utilised and cascaded; and investments can be planned for the optimal use of resources. Most respondents see this trend as being a driver for the bioeconomy, with 98.9 per cent of respondents rating it as either a major or minor driver (see Figure 3).
Pension funds and other large institutional investors are shifting their money into long-term investment in sustainability. This opens up new funding opportunities for the bioeconomy, especially large-scale projects, as large investors tend to favour fewer and bigger investments over multiple small ones. Of the five macrotrends, green investment has the highest percentage of respondents (74.9 per cent) who expect it to be a major driver for the bioeconomy.
Many rural and already sparsely populated areas in the Nordic region and around the Baltic Sea are expected to see further falls in their population up to 2030. This may be an obstacle to the growth of the bioeconomy in rural areas. Urbanisation is expected to have a less positive impact on the bioeconomy than the other macrotrends. Respondents are split almost 50/50 on whether it will be a driver or a brake for the bioeconomy.
The idea of a new political “contract” between politicians and voters favouring sustainability – a Green New Deal – has emerged in a series of elections in 2019 that focused on the climate agenda. Most recently, this trend has been seen in the focus on sustainability in many European policy initiatives aimed at rebooting the economy after the COVID-19 lockdown. This is reflected in the respondents seeing this trend as a major (60.4 per cent) or minor driver (34.1 per cent) for the bioeconomy.
Electricity is replacing combustion in many aspects of the energy system, from district heating to cars. This affects the bioeconomy by reducing the need for biomass in heating, electricity generation and biofuels, while also potentially delivering cheap renewable energy that can reduce the cost of refining biomass into high-value products. Respondents rate this macrotrend as slightly less influential than the others, with the exception of urbanisation. 40.9 percent of respondents see electrification as a major driver for the bioeconomy.
Most respondents believe that four of the five macrotrends will act as positive drivers of a growing bioeconomy. Urbanisation is the only one not seen as clearly supportive. The five macrotrends are described below.
The bioeconomy already represents a significant share of our economies. Depending on definitions and geography, it is estimated to account for 10–20 per cent of the overall economy in the region covered by this report. However, its potential appears to be much larger.
The survey results clearly show strong expectations of growth in the bioeconomy in the region. Three out of four survey respondents believe the bioeconomy will grow “significantly” faster than the general economy, and become a “much larger” part of the economy of their country over the next 10–20 years. A further 24 per cent also see faster growth in the bioeconomy compared to overall economic growth but anticipate that it will only become a “slightly larger” part of the economy.
Bioeconomy experts and stakeholders have great expectations for the environmental and social benefits of an economy based on sustainable bio-resources, compared to one based on fossil materials. In this perspective – sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line of people (social), planet (environmental) and prosperity (economic) – the survey tells a story of a growing bioeconomy that generates economic growth while reducing its environmental footprint. This, in turn, generates additional socio-economic benefits, such as job creation and rural development.
One major finding from the survey is that conditions in the region are generally supportive of bioeconomic growth, albeit to varying degrees. In particular, respondents express a strong belief in the available natural resources – more than 80 per cent indicate that the natural resources in their country are either “supporting” or “very supporting” of a growing bioeconomy.
When asked about support from “bioeconomy stakeholders”, roughly two-thirds of respondents expect the stakeholder group of businesses, consumers and politicians to support initiatives to grow the bioeconomy. No stakeholder group is seen as “very limiting”.
Between April and May 2020, a survey was conducted to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the bioeconomy and its role in economic recovery. Respondents were asked to reflect on the future of sustainable bioeconomic development in light of the pandemic and to offer their perspective on its potential impact on the identified bioeconomy trends.
The respondents express mixed views on how the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis might affect the growth of the sustainable bioeconomy. However, 60 per cent of respondents believe it will strengthen the case for the bioeconomy: that a bio-based economy will be less susceptible to new pandemics or other international crises that risk shutting down global supply chains.
All four stakeholder groups expect growing support. In particular, the respondents’ comments focus on an expectation of a political ambition to boost the bioeconomy, to ensure that it remains relevant after the COVID-19 outbreak. The respondents expect this because they see the bioeconomy as an obvious area for investment aimed at generating new growth.
The analyses conducted in this report are based on multiple data sources. In order to identify the trends, a literature review was conducted, 25 experts were interviewed and four stakeholder workshops were conducted.
A survey of 223 bioeconomy professionals in the region was also carried out, the objective of which was to test the identified trends against respondents’ expectations. In addition, an updated survey relating to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was issued to the respondents. The analysis integrates insights from all of the above-mentioned data sources.
The development of a sustainable bioeconomy has never been more important. In times of climate change, a growing biodiversity crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a sustained focus on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, the idea of an economy that is partly or wholly based on biological raw materials – grown and harvested within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem – has attracted growing political and commercial attention. Whether the ambition is to achieve growth with a smaller environmental footprint, create jobs and opportunities in rural areas, or build an economy that is less dependent on fragile global value chains, stakeholders are looking to the bioeconomy.
However, the bioeconomy comes with its own set of challenges. Just because resources can be regrown, it does not mean they are limitless – only a certain amount can be grown in a sustainable way. Globally, we already see competition for land and biomass between, for example, the energy sector and the food sector. Similarly, when we start to cultivate areas that have until now been relatively untouched, it raises questions regarding who has the right to use those areas and how we protect biodiversity.
The purpose of this report is to support decision-making that realises the potential of the bioeconomy and balances the needs of multiple stakeholders within the boundaries set by the ecosystems. The report identifies five trends in the bioeconomy and five macrotrends that influence it and examines a number of supporting conditions. The overall ambition is to equip policy-makers with an in-depth understanding of where the bioeconomy is heading and help them to navigate its potential and pitfalls.
The report covers 14 countries surrounding the Baltic Sea Region and the Nordic Arctic, from North-West Russia to Greenland. They face very different conditions, and not every trend is seen in every area, but hopefully this report will spark greater interest in the bioeconomy from policy-makers across the region. The multiple benefits of the bioeconomy may prove even more important as the global economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession. The need for a post-crisis green recovery must be rooted in the bioeconomy.
The analysis utilised a three-step process to identify the trends that are shaping the bioeconomy and the potential for new growth.
First, a literature review identified potential trends. Secondly, through four workshops and 25 interviews, involving bioeconomy stakeholders and experts, the potential trends were narrowed down to five sector specific trends and five macrotrends that required further investigation. Finally, a survey was conducted to gather insights into the value-generation capacity of the trends. Through these activities, more than 350 stakeholders, representing diverse groups across the region, have contributed to the report.
|Agnė Dapkuvienė, Head of Internal Audit||Ministry of Agriculture||Lithuania|
|Alberto Giacometti, Research Fellow||Nordregio||Sweden|
|Anton Shcherbak, Research Associate||Institute of Economics Karelian Research Centre RAS||Russia|
|Āris Ādlers, President||Partnership for Rural Europe||Latvia|
|Astrida Miceikiene, Professor||Vytautas Magnus University||Lithuania|
|Camilla Widmark, Researcher||Forest Bioeconomy Network/SLU||Sweden|
|Christian Patermann, Former Programme Director||European Commission||Germany|
|Geir Oddsson, Senior Adviser||Ministry for Foreign Affairs||Iceland|
|Irīna Kulitāne, CEO||Konso Ltd.||Latvia|
|Janis Brizga, Former Chair||ANPED Northern Alliance for Sustainability||Latvia|
|Jonas Rönnberg, Associate Professor||Nordic Forest Research||Sweden|
|Katrin Kepp, Head of the Centre of Bioeconomy||Estonian University of Life Sciences||Estonia|
|Kristīne Sirmā, Head of Division||Ministry of Agriculture||Latvia|
|Liisa Saarenmaa, Deputy Head||Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry||Finland|
|Margareth Øverland, Professor||Norwegian University of Life Sciences||Norway|
|Martin Rümmelein, Youth Representative||Baltic Sea States Subregional Co-operation||Denmark|
|Minna Hakaoja, Food Industry and Retail Consultant||ProVeg International||Germany|
|Niels Gøtke, Head of Division||Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education||Denmark|
|Per Hansson, General Secretary||The Nordic Joint Committee for Agricultural and Food Research||Sweden|
|Santa Vītola, Project Manager||Vidzeme Planning Region||Latvia|
|Sergey G. Rebtsovskiy, Vice-Director||The Foundation of Participants of the Presidential Programme, Arkhangelsk region||Russia|
|Sirpa Kurppa, Research Professor Emerita||Natural Resources Institute / MTT Agrifood Research||Finland|
|Sveinn Margeirsson, Former CEO||Matís||Iceland|
|Tróndur Gilli Leivsson, Managing Director, CEO||Búnaðarstovan - Agricultural Agency||Faroe Islands|
|Vidar Skagestad, Director||Research Council of Norway||Norway|
The survey was conducted between January and March 2020. It was populated by outreach through relevant newsletters, mail groups and social media groups focused on the bioeconomy, as well as by direct outreach to relevant organisations and individuals. The survey gathered answers from 223 respondents, with good representation across the countries covered, although most respondents were from the Scandinavian countries. The public sector and academia stand out as the sectors with the highest response rates, accounting for 70 per cent of respondents, while the private sector comes in third with a sizeable representation (see Figure 7).
The target audience for the survey comprises individuals with professional knowledge of the bioeconomy, which is the case for 90 per cent of respondents. Job titles indicate that most respondents have a senior or managerial role. Although the survey cannot be said to be representative of a wider population of bioeconomy experts, it does present the insights of a relatively large group of professionals within a specific topic and a specific geographical range.
In April, the decision was taken to contact respondents again with additional questions relating to the COVID-19 crisis and its potential effects on the bioeconomy. This additional survey was sent out in late April, concluded in early May and received 122 responses, also with a reasonable geographical distribution.
The European Union Updated Bioeconomy Strategy (European Commission, 2018a) refers to a job creation potential in the bioeconomy of 1 million new jobs in member states. It also expects significant benefits in a range of policy areas, from climate change to land degradation. Ambitions are also high in the region covered by this report – for example, Finland anticipates economic growth of €100 billion and 100,000 new jobs in the bioeconomy over a ten-year period (Finnish Ministry of Employment and Economy, 2014).
These expectations for growth in the bioeconomy are reflected in the expert interviews and are signalled strongly throughout the survey. Seventy-three per cent of respondents believe that over the coming 10 to 20 years, the bioeconomy will significantly outgrow other economic sectors in their respective countries, and become a “much larger part” of the general economy. A further 24 per cent also see the bioeconomy outpacing other parts of the economy, but only to become a “slightly larger part” of it. Just two per cent of respondents expect the bioeconomy to grow at a slower pace than the general one.
Both the survey and the expert interviews revealed considerable ambitions for the environmental and social benefits of an economy based on sustainable bio-resources, compared to one dependent on fossil materials.
To capture these aspects, respondents were asked to rate the value-creation potential of the bioeconomy in three separate categories: economic, social, and environmental value (see Figure 10). In this perspective – often referred to as “the triple bottom line” – respondents saw the bioeconomy both as adding economic value and as a driver for environmental and social values.
The survey tells a story of a growing bioeconomy, one that generates revenue while also reducing environmental footprint and bringing about social benefits like job creation and rural development. The responses from experts in various fields testify to these benefits, as do the qualitative comments from survey respondents. The bioeconomy is not seen as business-as-usual growth, but business-above-usual growth, which supports a strong triple bottom line for people, planet and prosperity.
A third major finding in the survey is that important conditions for growth in the bioeconomy in the Baltic Sea Region and Nordic Arctic are already in place. More than 80 per cent of respondents indicate that the available natural resources in their country are either “supporting” or “very supporting” of a growing bioeconomy. This can indicate both unused resources and untapped economic potential in existing resource streams.
When asked about the support from “bioeconomy stakeholders”, roughly two-thirds of respondents expect stakeholders to support initiatives to grow the bioeconomy. The only area in which the level of support approaches neutral is existing regulation, where 43 per cent of respondents deem regulation to be limiting. This raises questions concerning whether regulation is lagging behind stakeholder interest in harvesting the opportunities offered by the available natural resources, or if some respondents see regulation that protects the environment as a limiting factor.
One of the limiting factors for a growing bioeconomy is the availability of raw material. Even though materials can be regrown, they are far from unlimited. The trend of closing material loops in industry is based on the fact that increasing both the availability of raw materials and the efficiency of their use will create a competitive advantage.
The total annual production of biomass in the European Union has been estimated at roughly 1.8 billion tons (European Parliament, 2018). The available biomass sidestreams are estimated at 314 million tons for agriculture and forestry alone (Cabeza et al., 2019). The term “sidestreams” describes the parts of the raw material that are not used for the main products, such as tree branches and sawdust from timber production, or the parts of fish that cannot be sold as fillets and portions. The value generated by utilizing these sidestreams is what drives this trend.
Industrial symbiosis is when one industry’s waste is used as another industry’s raw material. One of the best-known examples of this in the Baltic Sea Region is from Kalundborg in Denmark. The businesses in this partly bio-based industrial symbiosis exchange water, energy, and raw materials, resulting in great economic and environmental benefits. A lifecycle analysis showed that the nine partners in the symbiosis collaboration saved more than €24 million and created socio-economic benefits worth an additional €14 million per annum (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019).
In recent years, companies in markets ranging from dietary supplements to biodiesel have demonstrated that there are profits to be made from closing material loops and utilising industrial sidestreams for new or more valuable products. While this is not a new trend, expert interviews and survey results indicate considerable capacity for continued growth.
The survey identifies the closing of industrial material loops as the trend with the greatest potential to create value across all three categories. What stands out is the environmental benefits of this trend. With an average of 4.2 out of 5, this is the single highest score in any value category for any of the trends. It is also ranked first for economic potential and second for social value. The respondents, therefore, send a very strong signal that closing material loops in bio-based industries will drive potential new growth on all three bottom lines.
Despite the focus on the circular economy in recent years, the trend is not considered close to reaching its full potential yet. Half of the respondents estimate that “closing material loops” is a trend that will come to fruition in the coming decade, while the other half expect it to peak after 2030.
The circular economy concept has attracted growing political attention in Europe, with the European Commission developing Circular Economy Action Plans in 2015 and again in 2020. Closing material loops in industry has an obvious relation to the concept of a circular economy, and the EU’s focus on the circular economy is, therefore, a driver for this trend. However, it differs from a broader circular economy perspective in that it focuses on waste and sidestreams in industry only. This has the advantage of utilising large amounts of relatively uniform materials compared to the generally mixed materials produced from recycling products.
However, despite good examples and political goodwill, only a small proportion of materials are used in a circular manner. In the region covered by this analysis, Germany is in the lead, at just over a tenth of materials (see Figure 15). Circularity rates have also been falling in several countries in recent years (see Figure 16). According to the OECD’s Global Material Resources Outlook, most global economies face a challenge in reducing material intensity to levels that make up for their growth in GDP (OECD, 2019). This indicates that greater circularity in an established economy is a complex and long-term task. The bioeconomy has unique advantages in that it supports circularity, primarily because all biomaterials can be repurposed in some way, including in energy generation.
Despite the slow rate of progress towards a more circular economy, respondents have a generally positive view of this trend. In their comments, some respondents stated that there are still untapped sources of materials, especially to the East in the Baltic Nations and North-West Russia. However, as one respondent points out, there could be challenges associated with the fact that countries with unused materials may not have an industry that is currently well equipped to utilise sidestreams. This could imply the potential for transnational approaches worthy of further study.
In terms of sectors, food is mentioned as one with especially great potential for closing loops. The large proportion of food waste is seen as an obvious potential source of material that could be used better, as reflected in the 2020 EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Respondents also point to digitalisation as a key enabling technology for this trend to reach its full potential.
There has been considerable political support for biofuels. In the EU, this has been driven by the aim of reducing dependency on imported fuels – for example, 10 per cent of transport fuel should be produced from renewable sources. However, even though a target for greater use of biofuels has been EU policy since the Renewable Energy and Fuel Quality Directives of 2009, development has been slow. Of the EU countries covered in this analysis, only one country (Sweden) has reached the 10 per cent target (Figure 15).
The Baltic Sea represents a divide in the region, with countries to the north and west experiencing growth in the use of biofuels for transport in recent years (see Figure 16). Here, again, Sweden stands out, with 16 per cent growth. However, to the south and east, the use of biofuels for transport has largely stagnated.
According to a recent study, the current prognosis for the use of renewables in transport shows little or uneven progress (see Figure 17). Only Sweden seems to be poised for significant growth in renewables in this sector (including but not limited to biofuels), while Estonia and Finland are each expected to see a declining share.
This divide on biofuels is also reflected in the interviews and survey responses. Some proponents of biofuels mention the unmet need to use more renewable energy in transport in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some highlight the potential of untapped biomass sources from bio-industry waste.
Other, more sceptical voices assert that producing and using biofuels still release greenhouse gasses – albeit less than fossil fuels – and that greater use of biomass for transport means increased competition with other, perhaps more valuable uses, such as in food production or raw materials for industry or construction. The introduction of other renewable energy sources in the transport sector, especially wind power via electric cars, has led respondents to argue that biofuels will be a temporary tool in the transition from fossil fuels to more renewable energy systems.
Biofuel production increased dramatically between 2003 and 2017 but has stagnated in recent years. However, “increasing demand for green energy suggests that the production of ethanol and esters of vegetable oils will increase by 2030” (Bórawski et al., 2019). The survey responses closely mirror this picture. Biofuels are seen as having a moderate value-creation potential, primarily driven by the expectation that they will generate environmental value.
Most respondents believe biofuels will reach their full potential in 6 to 15 years, with 30 per cent anticipating full impact in nine years’ time. Fifteen per cent believe that biofuels may take more than 15 years to reach their full impact.
When it comes to the value-creation potential of biofuels, the survey respondents are divided. Some doubt the long-term sustainability of biofuels due to continued, albeit lower, emissions of greenhouse gases, and see them as a tool to transition to a low-carbon future: “this interim technology is not likely to be a win-win enterprise” noted Brooks Kaiser, Environmental Economics Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.
The respondents also highlight the need for strong political leadership and legislation to guide the shift from fossils to biofuels while avoiding competition with food production. “Conflicting aims with the food supply, material use, or the social dimension as well as possible impacts on biodiversity and indirect land use effects must be minimised,” concludes Christin Boldt, Policy Lead with the Secretariat of the Global Bioeconomy Summit 2020.
Looking ahead, several respondents see the potential of biofuels in specific sectors or geographies. Biofuels derived from forests are already well developed in the Nordic region, and second-generation approaches are now being explored. The slow development of biofuels in other regions, particularly the Baltics, illustrates the regional variation in this trend. Sewage sludge and manure remain largely untapped sources of biofuels, which means there is less competition for these resources than in areas such as forestry and field waste.
For centuries, branding products by telling a story about their production in a special locality has been a value driver for a wide range of products, from Norwegian and Icelandic salted cod to potatoes from the small Danish island of Samsø. Local branding adds value to a product or service by giving it an appealing story about sustainability, local supply chains and what makes its origin superior. This allows producers to charge a premium for the product, and consumers to enjoy the added benefits of supporting a certain region, either locally or at a distance. The respondents see this as a particularly strong trend within the food sector, with the potential to be applied in other sectors.
Many businesses have successfully carved out a production niche based on an appealing story of green and local production. This is often at odds with the classic economy-of-scale approach, which favours more uniform and centralised production. As noted in Lund University’s bioeconomy review: “Instead of exporting bio-resources for upgrading elsewhere, domestic upgrading would ensure a higher value-creation locally, in addition to expected synergies in terms of research and innovation” (2018, p. 34).
The trend of local branding includes both locally produced and consumed products, as well as products that are marketed using local attributes but also sold outside of the region where they are produced. According to several sources in the literature review, these two aspects of the trend are reflected in customer preferences – consumers in the EU demonstrate a stronger preference for products marketed as local, particularly in the food sector (European Commission, 2018b; Meyerding et al., 2019; Scalvedi & Saba, 2018).
The preference for locally branded products has increased over time, especially in conjunction with organic goods (Wägeli & Hamm, 2016). While the bulk of existing research applies to food products, there are also opportunities in other bioeconomy-based products, especially as consumers become more aware of the environmental and social impact of their consumption (European Commission & LE Europe, 2018).
The respondents mirror the research and express relatively high expectations for local branding as a value generator in the bioeconomy. This is especially true for social value-creation, which is in line with the local focus and opportunities for job creation in rural areas, but the trend is also strong in the other categories of value-creation.
The most remarkable aspect is the timescale, as respondents see local branding as the fastest way to grow the bioeconomy. Almost half of the respondents see it reaching full value-creation potential in the next five years, while almost three out of four see it happening within the decade.
One example of an innovative business model that is already generating value is REKO’s approach to retail and distribution. REKO is an acronym for Rejäl Konsumtion (“fair consumption” in Swedish) and is mainly restricted to food products. The concept is spreading from its origin in Finland across the Nordic countries (see Figure 22). The REKO rings offer customers a way to order products directly from the producer without the need for intermediaries. They operate via closed groups on social media, run by volunteers.
The survey respondents see this trend as a lever for developing business and industries in more remote areas across the region. “Sweden, Denmark, and Germany are very strong in branding and product design. Other countries have huge potential, but less tangible and competitive products,” says Kyösti Lempa, Senior Adviser with NordForsk, describing local branding as a way for products to become more competitive by adding environmental or social benefits.
Respondents also point out that it is important to grasp the differences between individual countries’ economies in order to understand the future of local branding and its success. “I think in general that smaller countries can be more successful at a national scale to promote local branding. The populations on islands like Iceland and Åland Islands have a culture of local entrepreneurship,” says Hans-Olof Stålgren, Coordinator with the Swedish Board of Agriculture.
Algae and seaweeds are gaining attention as useful inputs for industries as diverse as energy and human food production. Aquatic vegetation – both in the seas and in freshwater – can grow at several times the pace of terrestrial plants, and the high natural oil content of some algae makes them ideal for producing a variety of products, from cosmetic oils to biofuels. At the same time, algae farming has added value in potential synergies with farming on land, as algae farms utilise nutrient run-off and reduce eutrophication. In addition, aquatic vegetation is a highly versatile feedstock. Algae and seaweed thrive in challenging and varied conditions and can be transformed into products ranging from fuel, feeds, fertiliser, and chemicals, to third-generation sugar and biomass.
These benefits are the basis for seaweed and algae emerging as one of the most important bioeconomy trends in the region. According to A Sustainable Bioeconomy for Europe, algae farming in the EU is still at an early phase. However, it should also be seen as a fast-moving sector that has advanced significantly in recent years, expanding by 66 per cent between 2005 and 2014 in the EU (European Commission, 2018a).
The production of algae (both micro- and macroalgae) can take numerous forms. At least nine different production methods have been identified in the region covered in this analysis (see Figure 23). A total of 41 production sites are currently operating in Denmark, Estonia, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Germany, and Sweden. Germany has by far the most sites for microalgae production, whereas Denmark and Norway have the most macroalgae sites.
The respondents support the notion that there is great potential for scaling up algae production. Nearly two-thirds of respondents believe that algae have the potential to create moderate to high environmental value, and moderate economic and social value. The economic prospects weigh slightly higher than the social.
Although overall expectations for this trend are optimistic, most respondents believe that it will take more time for algae and seaweed utilisation to come to fruition. Just over four out of ten respondents believe that the field will reach its full value-creation potential within the decade. One in four believes it may take more than 15 years.
Most respondents acknowledge both the usefulness of algae as a raw material and the environmental value of algae farming. However, several highlight the need for support at policy level to develop these industries and associated technologies. This corresponds closely with signals from other expert groups, such as the European Union co-funded Blue Bioeconomy R&D network, which sees aquatic vegetation as a “still largely untapped resource for bio-based processes and products” (Hurst et al., 2018).
While coastal areas offer major advantages for developing marine vegetation industries, countries with less coastline are far from excluded. Elin Bergman, a Circular Economy Expert with WWF Sweden, notes that: “there is a big potential for sustainable algae production in contained, circular environments on land and all countries have the potential of participating in this sector”.
Today, however, the market for seaweed and algae products is under-developed. Harnessing its potential requires thoughtful planning, stimulation, and technological advancement. “Like the agricultural farmers, algae farmers need subsidies to cover costs and upscale production, otherwise we cannot expect much development. Also, only with licensing regulations and proper planning in place will the sectors grow,” says Efthalia Arvaniti, Program Manager for the SUBMARINER Network for Blue Growth.
Animal protein sources such as meat and dairy are a major part of the diet of people in the Baltic Sea Region and Nordic Arctic. However, these often entail high environmental costs in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, extensive land use, nutrient run-off and resulting eutrophication. A significant portion of the environmental footprint comes from animal feed, which is often imported.
With the world population expected to grow to between nine and ten billion people by 2050, there is an increasing need for protein sources with a lower environmental impact, which is driving this trend.
Over the past decade, self-sufficiency in feed protein in the European Union has slowly declined (European Commission, 2019c). This has spurred a search for more sustainable and local protein sources, which further drives this trend.
Research is still being conducted into a range of new protein sources, and several of them look promising. The Nordic Alternative Protein Potentials report (Lindberg et al., 2016), mentions grasses, legumes, and grain- and oil seed co-products, but also highlights the high potential of fungi, bacteria, insects, and micro-algae for both human and animal consumption.
New protein sources perform well in the survey, with respondents rating the value-creation potential in the middle of the field. This is driven mainly by strong expectations for the environmental benefits of shifting to new sources of proteins.
However, as the newcomer in the field, this trend is also expected to be relatively slow to mature. Fewer than half of the survey respondents – 48 per cent – expect it to reach full value-creation potential within the decade. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, many new protein sources are still under development or in early market stage and will take time to upscale. Secondly, there is an expectation that, at least for human consumption, it will take some time for consumers to incorporate new protein sources as staples in their diet. As one respondent puts it: “The key question is how to change protein-consumption habits.”
The respondents point to how the development of alternative and new protein sources is intrinsically linked to levels of meat consumption, which remain high throughout the region compared to most of the world. Average meat consumption ranges from 67 to 95 kg per person annually (see Figure 28), and all of the countries except Sweden and Germany are at the higher end of this range (see Figure 29).
However, the respondents also see changing consumer attitudes towards new, more plant-based diets. As one notes, in Poland where meat supply is among the highest in the region (89 kg per person per year), three million people are vegetarians or vegans. This also corresponds well with a recent analysis for the European Commission, which reports a rise in the number of flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets, a change that is expected to support this trend (European Commission, 2019b). The analysis also describes a growing demand for more organic and genetically modified (GM)-free protein-rich plants for feed grown in Europe.
In the survey comments, Denmark is referred to as a future frontrunner in this trend, due to its initial work of refining protein-rich grasses. “The highest potential right now is in Denmark, but other countries also have their own unique possibilities to learn from their approach,” says Katrin Kepp, Head of the Centre of Bioeconomy, Estonian University of Life Sciences.
Looking ahead, some respondents point out that this trend is still reliant on policy support, especially if it is to spread across much of the region. “We need robust investment in, e.g. plant breeding for high-latitude areas, as well as for seaweed production and fermentation processes,” concludes Tróndur G. Leivsson, Managing Director and CEO of the Agricultural Agency in the Faroe Islands.
The bioeconomy is not developing in a vacuum. The potential of an economy based on the sustainable utilisation of biological resources is highly dependent on societal and technological trends, which are not themselves part of the bioeconomy.
For the survey, five macrotrends were identified – based on the literature review and expert interviews – as being relevant for the development of the bioeconomy. The five macrotrends were surveyed in order to understand respondents’ expectations of how they will influence the growth of the bioeconomy – positively or negatively.
Digitalisation: Defined as the use of digital technologies to change business models, generate new revenue, and create value-producing opportunities (Gartner, 2020). Digitalisation can influence the bioeconomy in several ways: resources can be more efficiently grown, transported, utilised, and cascaded and investments can be planned for their optimal use.
Green investments: Pension funds and other large institutional investors are shifting their focus towards long-term investment in sustainability. This provides new funding opportunities for the bioeconomy, especially large-scale projects, as large investors tend to favour fewer and larger investments over many small ones.
Urbanisation: Many rural and less populated areas in the Nordic region and around the Baltic Sea are expected to see further falls in their population towards 2030. Urbanisation, especially the relocation of younger people to the cities, can be an obstacle to bioeconomic growth in rural areas.
Green New Deals: The idea of a new political “contract” between politicians and voters that favours sustainability – a Green New Deal – has recently emerged in many places around the world. This proposal has been amplified by many of the European policy initiatives aimed at restarting the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Electrification: Electricity is replacing combustion in many areas of the energy system, from district heating to transport. This affects the bioeconomy by reducing the need for biomass in heating, electricity generation, and for biofuels, while potentially supplying cheap, renewable energy that can reduce the cost of refining biomass into high-value products like CO2-neutral jet fuels, plastics, etc.
More than 90 per cent of respondents see digitalisation as a driver (major or minor) for the bioeconomy. However, in terms of how strong a driver it will be, responses are mixed – a third of respondents believe it will only be a minor one.
While some respondents highlight that digitalisation is already widespread in the bioeconomy, others point to the opportunities provided by newer technologies like remote control, 5G, automation, and artificial intelligence in relation to monitoring, planning, harvesting, and distributing bio-based resources. Agriculture, wood production, bio-refining, fisheries, and aquaculture seem especially promising. Digitalisation may even aid local bioeconomy growth by giving local producers access to much wider markets via webshopping and social media.
“Digitalisation is a must in the value-creation at every step of the process,” explains Kyösti Lempa, Senior Adviser for NordForsk, Norway. Lempa and other respondents highlight how digitalisation can increase efficiency by bridging information gaps, supporting small-stream supply chains, reducing labour costs, and discovering unused potential. “Digitalisation can make value chains more transparent, help to account for externalities and ultimately lead to competitive advantage of circular resource loops,” adds Kaj Granholm, Project Manager, Baltic Sea Action Group.
Many of the respondents focus on the need to increase investment in bioeconomic enterprises. As Jonathan Turner, the Director of NLA International, notes: “the enabling impact of investment cannot be underestimated. It is vital if a meaningful level of sustainable industry is to be established.” It is not surprising, therefore, that green investment is seen as a strong supporter for bioeconomic growth – 75 per cent of respondents consider it a major driver.
Some respondents see potential in divestment from the fossil fuels, which will free up funds that can be reinvested in the bioeconomy. The current uncertainty about the future of the fossil-fuel industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely add weight to that argument.
However, some respondents voice concern over the magnitude of the change necessary to reset global economic pathways. Some also express concern that some of these so-called “green investments” are more a matter of greenwashing than actual sustainability. Other respondents point out that modest growth in green investments is likely to be dwarfed by the rest of the financial sector. This is compounded by a concern that green investments tend to have a longer timeline and can be less lucrative than traditional investments.
“Most investors are still following the market that is rather conservative,” notes Holger Wallbaum, Professor of Sustainable building at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.
Urbanisation is expected to be a potential threat. There is almost a 50/50 split among respondents as to whether urbanisation will be a driver or a brake for the growth of the bioeconomy. Some point out that decreased rural land values could present new opportunities to scale up new bio-industries more rapidly. Others focus on the negative effects of urbanisation, such as potentially problematic shifts in ownership of biological resources and what amounts to a “brain drain” of skilled labour. The responses suggest, however, that this macrotrend is likely to have a less significant impact on the bioeconomy – 72.2 per cent rate this trend as a minor influence in either direction.
Most of the respondents’ comments address strategies to actively resist urbanisation by utilising various policy interventions to incentivise people to move back to rural communities. Respondents propose enhancing education in rural areas and strengthening incentives for rural entrepreneurship.
Other respondents promote an approach in which best practice and new ideas from urban testing grounds are implemented in rural areas: “Urbanisation is a powerful trend that needs a lot of attention. How do we build attractive environments in rural areas to make it possible for young people and others to stay and live their lives?” says Per Hansson, General Secretary of the Nordic Joint Committee for Agriculture and Food Research.
In 2019, Europe saw a number of elections in which sustainability and climate were high on the political agenda. The idea of a “Green New Deal” that steers societies toward sustainability has taken root in many parts of Europe, including the region covered in this report. It is expected that governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic will amplify this concept. Survey respondents overwhelmingly rate the recent “greening” of politics as beneficial for the bioeconomy, with 96 per cent of respondents describing this trend as a positive driver. However, a third of respondents think it may only be a minor positive driver, while a few respondents believe it may even slow bioeconomic development.
“Political direction will make an impact and change the current situation,” predicts one respondent. Respondents generally predict a shift toward sustainability in the larger ecosystem of industry, consumers, and civil society. They say that policy-makers will have to anchor these positive developments, integrate the bioeconomy, and strive for even higher levels of ambition, in order to push other sectors. Green New Deals are “an absolute necessity for creating new markets within the bioeconomy. I would like to see even more regulation of industries that are harmful to the environment,” says one respondent from the financial industry.
Others point out that while Green New Deals across Europe are off to a good start, they have yet to deliver real results. They caution that while large-scale policies and ambitions are an important first step, the success of actual legislation depends on effective operationalisation. Systems-based scientific research and an ongoing focus on the bioeconomy are seen as important prerequisites for creating the type of detailed sustainability policies that respondents deem necessary, both now and in the future. As such, some respondents expressed concerns about the lack of focus on the bioeconomy in the EU Green New Deal presented in late 2019.
The increased production of electricity from renewable energy is starting to replace combustion in many aspects of the energy system. This can have an enormous effect on the bioeconomy. First, it can reduce the need for biomass in heating, electricity generation, and biofuels. Second, the abundance – at least during certain periods – of cheap, renewable energy can reduce the cost of refining biomass into high-value products like CO2-neutral jet fuels, gas, plastics, and more. The development of these products is closely tied to the concept of “Power-to-X” that is gaining attention in countries such as Denmark and Germany, in which fluctuating, renewable energy generation exceeds demand. Electrification can also provide opportunities for more advanced, partly bio-based energy carriers, e.g. synthfuels that combine carbon from biomass with hydrogen made from renewable electricity.
The optimism around this trend is reflected in the survey – 84.8 per cent of respondents consider it a driver of the bioeconomy. Those who are less optimistic worry about its short-term effects: “Electrification of the energy sector will perhaps in the short term increase the demand for biomass power production, but in the longer term it will reduce the demand for solid biomass for heat and power production,” asserts Niclas Scott Bentsen.
Electrification is also mentioned as a tool for developing greater resource efficiency, especially in sectors like transportation and forestry. While respondents generally assert that this trend has already begun, some feel that its influence on the bioeconomy has yet to be felt. Electrification goes hand in hand with digitalisation, as new digital tools will increase efficiency in energy supply. “Digitalisation of the energy system will facilitate wider collaboration across the bioeconomy, such as between the water, food, and health sectors,” believes Alan Whiteside, Innovation Consultant with NHS Highland, Scotland.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a sudden shift in society and has left many unanswered questions about the nature of future economic growth and the role of the transition to more sustainable production and consumption. The urgent need to reboot economies comes with both risks, in the form of setbacks to environmental progress, as well as opportunities to speed up the sustainable transition. We already know that the pandemic has had serious consequences for the fossil-fuel sector. In particular, the significant fall in oil prices may result in investments shifting away from fossil fuels.
To understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the bioeconomy and its potential role in a green economic recovery, a survey was conducted between April and May 2020. Respondents with substantial professional experience in the bioeconomy were asked to reflect on the future of sustainable bioeconomic developments in the light of the pandemic, and to assess its potential impact on the identified trends in the bioeconomy.
Overall, respondents expect the pandemic to galvanise stakeholders’ support for the bioeconomy, and that the growth of the sustainable bioeconomy will be an ever-greater priority. In particular, they expect that the focus will be on the social and environmental benefits. Respondents see local branding as the trend that has the greatest potential for attracting support in the wake of the pandemic.
Approximately 60 per cent of respondents believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will increase the momentum for the growth of the bioeconomy. The survey also indicates that the respondents are split, as the remaining 40 per cent anticipate a minor or major negative impact on the growth of the bioeconomy. However, the general expectation – shared by two-thirds of respondents – is that the pandemic’s effects will be minor, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.
A similar picture emerged when respondents were asked to evaluate how the pandemic will affect support for the bioeconomy amongst stakeholders. Approximately three out of four expect more support for the bioeconomy across all stakeholder categories. Again, however, the general expectation is that the effect will be mostly minor. Around one in four believe that the pandemic will have a negative effect on stakeholder support.
In their comments, respondents focus in particular on how they expect the political ambition of strengthening the bioeconomy will continue to be relevant after the COVID-19 outbreak. This is the case across all political and administrative levels: EU, national, regional, local government, etc. “I believe that after the coronavirus, it will be necessary to invest to get the societal wheels rolling. The bioeconomy will benefit from these investments, which will likely be combined with the ambition to develop the bioeconomy further through the European Green Deal,” says Jerker Johnson, Coordinator of International Affairs for the Regional Council of Ostrobothnia in Finland.
This corresponds well with the results from another survey question, about whether the pandemic has made it more important to develop the bioeconomy. The responses – which consider the issue in relation to the same three value areas: economic, social, and environmental – send a generally positive signal that the bioeconomy is becoming more important.
The respondents are most confident about the effect of local branding, with almost half (48.7 per cent) anticipating a major positive impact as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several respondents pointed out that global supply chains have exposed their vulnerabilities throughout this crisis, which further supports the value of local branding.
The trends relating to closing material loops, new protein sources, and algae are all also expected to be impacted positively – 73 per cent and upwards of respondents predict a minor or major positive impact on these trends as a result of the crisis. Despite most respondents anticipating that the pandemic will positively impact all of the trends, the biofuels trend has the lowest level of support, and 36.2 per cent of respondents even see the trend as being negatively impacted.
This survey generally illustrates that the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have a positive impact on the sustainable bioeconomy in the region. However, there are also clear signs of uncertainty about how growth in the bioeconomy can be implemented during a period of economic decline. Continual transformation requires funding and political attention, which could be difficult to attract if priorities shift to other areas that have been greatly impacted by the pandemic. Dr. Christian Patermann, former Director at the European Commission, highlights this point, stating that “bioeconomy technologies must to a greater extent take costs into account, with a particular focus on low-cost technologies in the areas of food, energy, and construction. This will not only be essential for emerging countries but also for many industrialised ones”.
With regards to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on oil prices, some respondents expressed concerns about the ramifications for the bioeconomy. For example, Hans-Olof Stålgren, of the Swedish Board of Agriculture, says that “with the very low prices of oil right now, there will be large amounts of activity from oil companies and oil-producing states aimed at increasing demand”. Another key reflection from respondents is that the changes brought about by the pandemic may not last when the world returns to a more normal situation. They find it hard to assess which changes will become permanent: “Most likely, after the end of the crisis, efforts may be too focused on getting back on track after the pause, no matter the cost. This may not be an ideal situation for the development of a sustainable bioeconomy,” said Santa Vītola, Project Manager, Vidzeme Planning Region, Latvia.
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© Nordic Council of Ministers 2020
Cartographer: Johanna Jokinen
Layout: Louise Jeppesen
Frontpage photo: Trend 1-3: Unsplash.com Trend 4: Camille Duran, Greenexchange.earth Trend 5: Ritzau Scanpix
Photo credit: Executive summary, Introduction, Conditions for the bioeconomy in the region, Bioeconomy trend 1, Bioeconomy trend 2, Bioeconomy trend 4, Macrotrends influencing the bioeconomy, COVID-19 has made the bioeconomy more important than ever and References: Unsplash.com Bioeconomy trend 3: Johner.dk Bioeconomy trend 5: Ritzau Scanpix
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