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Replacing a product made from fossil resources with a bio-based equivalent seems, on the face of it, to make perfect sense. But it raises questions about how the product is going to be used and whether there’s a real need for it. tThe two researchers Alexandru Giurca (Heidelberg Center for the Environment (HCE), Heidelberg University, Germany), and Nicolas Befort (Chair in Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development, NEOMA Business School, France), examined the case of the forest-based sector to underline the hidden pitfalls of the terms bioeconomy, innovation and substitution. 

In a sign of the times – and in line with government policy (especially the EU’s bioeconomy strategy) – we have to learn to make do without fossil fuels. But how? These energy sources and their derivatives need to be replaced by products and services supplied by sustainable resources, in particular from the forest industry.

Innovation equals substitution for industry

Industry seems to have widely embraced this bioeconomy discourse! The researchers analysed the literature published by actors in the forest bioeconomy (the scientific or “grey” literature – e.g. websites, reports, position papers, etc.). The study highlighted the key arguments for developing the sector put forward by industry professionals and forest owners’ associations, arguments that can be summed up as follows: the bioeconomy is a sure path towards clean technological innovations and green infrastructure for a brighter future – not to mention creating jobs. A number of positive examples are cited, ranging from timber-framed buildings to biofuels together with pharmaceutical products, textiles, and so forth.

These bioeconomy stakeholders foreground the benefits of substituting existing products with their own by means of innovation: since the latter are made from renewable resources, they are – it goes without saying – good for the planet. In a speech in 2019, the former managing director of the Swedish Forest Industries Federation said: “Thanks to our experience in the field of innovation, we can say with certainty that everything that we can make from oil can also be made from trees”. This statement implies that the forest industry can help combat global warming.

The missing element: a global vision

This discourse raises a problem, however, as the authors point out: whereas it is understandable from an economic perspective (the sector is trying to grow its market share), the arguments lack perspective and a degree of subtlety. The challenges of feasibility, efficiency and social acceptability are given prominence, while questions about the validity of the approach, its environmental impact and the sustainability of substitute innovations are skirted over – or are not even asked.

Diversifying products derived from forest-based industries to add value to existing supply chains means exploiting more forest massifs and, it follows, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, the paradigm of this “substitution-replacement framing”, as the researchers call it, is the same as for fossil fuels: we should produce more and grow. However, although wood is renewable, it is not permanently available in unlimited quantities, and the forest bioeconomy raises important questions – issues that are addressed in the literature published by other stakeholders, which was also studied by the two researchers.

Think sustainable!

 The subject of carbon storage, for example, is addressed in academic research, as well as in the literature published by certain institutions, such as the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Here the discourse focuses on a substitution-restructuring framing: although this does not alter the growth paradigm, it is nevertheless committed to the genuinely sustainable aspect of substitution. In other words: producing bio-based objects and services should not be an end in itself, but a way of tackling global warming. This means we need to think about what is being replaced – and how – and analyse the costs and benefits of substitution for the environment.

The literature published by NGOs goes one step further: it criticises substitution and on occasions points out the “dark side” of the bioeconomy, such as forest degradation or the failure to respect human rights. It also challenges the “myth” of the forest-based solution as a solution to climate change: it can be used as an argument for avoiding the need to take more drastic measures. NGOs also call for the rebound effect to be factored in: this is linked to an increase in forest exploitation and its impact on biodiversity and carbon storage. This discourse fits into the framework of transformation: it is no longer a matter of producing as before, but of drastically modifying uses to produce better.

The importance of changing the paradigm

This is also the solution championed by the authors of the study: for the forest bioeconomy to come into its own, it needs to zero in on so-called “functional innovations” rather than “drop-in innovations”. According to this idea (coined by Nicolas Béfort in 2021), the former aim to change uses to provide functionalities equivalent to those that already exist, but based on low-tech and fossil activities degrowth. Drop-in innovations, on the other hand, aim to draw on technology to continue the search for growth.

In other words, in the case of drop-in innovations, new material flows are added to existing ones; with functional innovations, non-durable materials are effectively eliminated. In the green growth narrative, however, the forest bioeconomy (as explained today by industry professionals) bolsters an economy – although based on a renewable resource – that outstrips the limits of the planet’s resources.

In conclusion, society has to make a choice. Should we support an innovative bioeconomy? Yes. Should the goal be a deep transformation of economies? Yes. The goal should be to genuinely transform production structures so we can make a meaningful positive impact on the environment.

Find out more

Deconstructing substitution narratives: The case of bioeconomy innovations from the forest-based sector – Alexandru Giurca, Nicolas Béfort – Ecological Economics -Volume 207, 2023 – https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2023.107753