Bio-based Economy Ripe with Opportunity, but for Whom?

While there is a sense that governments and forestry industry are struggling to keep pace with “overwhelming” global change, this could also offer opportunities for industry wanting to harness the bio-based economy*, by feeding it renewable products that are resource efficient and renewable, forestry and development stakeholders meeting at seminar in Stockholm have been told. Co-organised by the Swedish Secretariat for International Forestry Issues and the Washington-based Rights and Resources Initiative, the seminar took as its starting point a summary on global “megatrends”, described by a group of experts meeting at Chatham House in London last month.

One of its chairpersons, Sten Nilsson of the Royal Swedish Academy for Agriculture and Forestry, told delegates to the Stockholm meeting that there was “tremendous potential” for innovation and growth in the sector covering biotechnology and bio-based products. According to current predictions, bioenergy use alone would more than quadruple between the years 2000 and 2030 to 13 billion cubic meters of output, he said, adding that “bio-production”, in which he included bio-based chemicals and “components”, would be growing at a rate of 12-15 per cent per year.

Others, such as Lars-Göran Sandberg from Timwood, a Sweden-based consultancy, pointed to opportunities for technology development in the construction sector, in which solid wood could serve as a “very environmentally friendly” alternative to steel and cement. A well-travelled consultant and an advisor to multinational industry, Sandberg went on to say that forest-sourced biomass could be used to make composite products, packaging and hygiene products such as diapers.

Harnessing efficiency in the bio-based economy could be one way to ensure “fiber security”, he said. Leaning on Nilsson’s prediction that extraction of already scarce natural resources was set to increase by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2030, Sandberg said that the corporate sector had to be a driver for change, bringing resource efficient products to market and “finding local solutions”.

The industry “cannot be successful without (having) a large share of new products”, agreed Swedish Forest Industries Federation Director Marie S. Arwidson. Those could be fuels and “combinations of materials”. Moreover, energy efficiency was “high on the agenda” of the Swedish forestry industry which was “electricity intensive”, according to Arwidson.

“We have to be increasing our efficiency”, she said; “I have the feeling that our companies are taking this seriously”.

Including developing countries

However, as Johan Rockström, the scientist heading Stockholm Resilience Centre said, saving energy works only for those who have access to it.

Beyond making reference to international schemes or codes of conducts, few Sweden-based representatives of the forestry sector described actions taken by themselves to engage directly with counterparts in developed countries with a view to let them in on opportunities offered by the bio-based economy or to help them cope with new demands for efficiency in the face of diminishing natural resources.

A notable exception was Lennart Ackzell, an international coordinator with the Federation of Swedish Family Forest Owners. Talking of his organisation’s work to “strengthen” small holders in Kenya in a project backed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), he said that involvement by local populations and “good” governance by investors and policy makers at all levels were keys to long-term success.

On this note, Sida’s Johan Schaar stepped in to challenge the seminar with a question. How was it, he wondered, that Swedish stakeholders were not more involved in the European Union’s voluntary scheme to ensure that only legally harvested timber was imported to the EU from third countries? This Forest Law Enforcement and Governance scheme, or FLEGT, had recently won acclaim for its achievements from “civil society”, he said.

Refreshingly candid, Schaar was one of the rare speakers to acknowledge upfront that the global-level change described by experts was “overwhelming”.

“We have difficulty keeping pace with what is happening”, he said.

Anna Strom

Foto: Anna Strom