A sustainable bioeconomy for Europe?
In October 2018, six years after it was first released, the EU published its updated bioeconomy strategy. The strategy targets “all sectors and systems that rely on biological resources”, and aims to encourage healthy ecosystems, sustainable management of natural resources, and mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The Commission has laid out 14 actions to be launched in 2019 and implemented by 2025, in keeping with EU and international policy goals.
Yet the strategy displays worrying gaps and assumptions.
First, there is no acknowledgement that burning biomass releases greenhouse gases and keeps us trapped in the burning economy, nor does it mention that bioenergy is best produced from waste at the end of the hierarchy of uses, rather than by felling forests for the sole purpose of creating bioenergy. Second, it states that the bioeconomy can help reach the objective of ‘plastic free seas’ but does not raise the issue of ‘biowaste’ which, without clear plans for its disposal, could harm the environment (such as oceans) like any other plastic waste. The need to reduce consumption is another striking omission: Europe cannot institute a bioeconomy if its Member States continue to consume without limit, but the strategy will achieve nothing to this effect.
The Commission also states that it will pilot ‘carbon farming’ whereby countries are enabled to buy carbon credits from farmers and forest owners, who take on the administrative burden of ensuring that they account for emissions. The strategy does not state whether this will take the form of ‘offsets’ and allow countries to increase their emissions, which would put climate targets far from reach. Fern is strongly critical of any scheme that promotes offsetting. Offsetting does not mean that greenhouse gases are not being released; it simply means that someone aside from the polluter is taking responsibility. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we need both to reduce emissions as fast as possible AND increase carbon dioxide removals..
More research is needed. Fern calls for a study that quantifies, insofar as possible, how much carbon dioxide would be emitted and how much sequestered by an EU bioeconomy. The present Strategy does not include a clear quantification of the net impact of a bioeconomy, although this is something that the Joint Research Committee is assessing.
How does the bioeconomy compare with the fossil-based economy, and with an economy that runs on wind and solar rather than bioenergy? Can the risks and benefits be clarified? To understand whether the bioeconomy Strategy will achieve its goals, we need verifiable information to fill the gaps.
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