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The bioeconomy: an engine of future growth

Marc Palahí, Director of the European Forest Institute, explains what the bioeconomy is and how it will help us leave the fossil economy behind and “decouple economic growth from environmental and social degradation”.

Over the past 200 years, as a result of the industrial revolution, our society has depended on an economy based on fossil resources. This model has provided growth, employment and prosperity in many areas of the planet, but it has also generated the most significant environmental crisis in our history: climate change.

Climate change has an intensifying effect on other important challenges we face in the 21st century: energy security, overpopulation, food and water shortages, and crises relating to health and migration. In one way or another, all of these challenges are connected and related to the major dilemma of our times: how to decouple growth from environmental and social degradation.

“The low price of oil is leading fossil investors to reduce their investment in fossil fuels and look for other sectors that are more secure and less volatile in the long term”

Marc Palahi, Director of the European Forest Institute


The answer must come from the hand of science, but leadership from politics and business is also essential to lay the foundations of a society that prospers within the sustainable limits of our planet.

The development of biological science, and of bio- and nanotechnology, provides us with unprecedented opportunities to substitute petroleum by-products (plastics and chemical, textile or electronic products) with biologically based products with a substantially reduced environmental footprint. For example, it is possible to generate carbon fibre from lignin (a component of wood) or produce nanocellulose, a stronger and lighter material than steel with an infinite number of industrial applications, such as batteries, flexible screens and ultra-resistant fabrics.

But innovation isn’t just happening at the microscopic level. New engineering products in wood, such as cross-laminated timber, are revolutionising the construction business. This is the sector with the greatest environmental impact bar none, given that in Europe it is responsible for 35% of CO2 emissions, more than 40% of energy use and more than 30% of material use and waste generation.

In this context, building with wood means substantial reductions in CO2 emissions, greater energy efficiency, and savings in materials, time and waste. Construction in wood today has no technological limitations. It is possible to build skyscrapers to a height of more than 80 metres.

The challenge lies in changing current legislation and, above all, for architects to enter the age of the bioeconomy. Finally, another example is the use of wood-based fibres (cellulose) to produce high-quality textiles to replace polyester (petroleum-based) and cotton, which requires large quantities of water in areas such as India or China, where water will be increasingly needed to produce food.

These examples show that science and technology are already laying the foundations for the post-petroleum age. The big question is how to take this scientific and technological success to a scale of paradigm shift. How to ensure that longstanding industries such as the textile, petrochemical, construction and pharmaceutical sectors join and even lead this paradigm shift? And how to achieve this within a context of low oil prices?

Let’s start with this last question. The low price of oil poses more of an opportunity than a risk for the bioeconomy. Although this may seem contradictory, it is true. Firstly, it provides a great opportunity to put a price on CO2 emissions, so that the environmental cost involved can be internalised by the market. A global price on CO2 emissions is now more feasible than ever within a context of low oil prices. This price would provide incentives to produce bioproducts with a much smaller carbon footprint.

“The low price of oil is leading fossil investors to reduce their investment in fossil fuels and look for other sectors that are more secure and less volatile in the long term”

Marc Palahi, Director of the European Forest Institute

Secondly, the low price of oil is leading fossil investors to reduce their investment in fossil fuels and look for other sectors that are more secure and less volatile in the long term.

In this context, the Climate Change Agreement signed by 165 countries last April sends a message over the long term to the heart of the economy: transformation into a low-carbon economy is irreversible. In this regard, the bioeconomy has its sights set very much on the future.

Thirdly, governments that have substantially subsidised fossil fuels to keep prices low for consumers now have a great chance to redirect those subsidies and incentivise a transition to the bioeconomy.

The transformation of traditional industrial sectors into biosectors will not be easy. Leadership from the political world and from investment groups is crucial. A regulatory framework needs to be created along with a reliable long-term investment that incentivises traditional sectors of the fossil economy to change into bioeconomy champions. This means policies and access to capital that will reward businesses with a positive effect to tackle climate change and improve the environment: certification, eco-labelling, public contracting of bioproducts, etc.

The post-petroleum age has begun, and the transition to the bioeconomy is irreversible if we want growth, employment and prosperity to be reconciled with the environment, and most importantly with future generations. It will not be an easy transformation. One of the definitions of the term fossil is resistance to change. But let’s not forget that bio means life, and there is no more powerful catalyst of change than life.

Marc Palahi, Director of the European Forest InstituteMarc Palahi
European Forest Institure

Marc Palahi is the The European Forest Institute was established in 1993 by 25 European States, including the UK. With a vision of “living in a world where the sustainability of our forests and societies is secured”, the EFI is active in many areas, including research.


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Vanessa Spedding 4 years ago

Nice aims and some great innovations here but I take issue with the idea you can decouple economic growth from deleterious impacts on the environment. Research would appear to challenge this assumption too. Energy descent and economic degrowth are more likely prerequisites for the ecological regeneration we must support for a chance at retrieving a habitable planet. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0164733