Renewable Matter # 1 / Next Europe

Growth, Sustainability and the Bioeconomy. An Uneasy Triangle?

by Christian Patermann

When decision-makers in politics, economics and in our daily life, when concerned citizens or also consumers discuss about Growth and/or Sustainability their arguments normally follow well defined structures and biases: some like Growth as the indispensable instrument for well being, jobs, peace. Others regard it as an evil, devil’s work; sustainability however is normally everybody’s darling, although lately criticized by more and more to be just a buzz word and much too vague. 

Upon the arrival of the notion of the knowledge-based or biobased Economy, or just the Bioeconomy, these discussions have become more complex, for some even embarrassing. Some regard the new candidate as a competitor for both, others fear that this intriguing concept is just conceived to smuggle GMO’s into our daily life under the pretext of substituting the fossil century. Rarely people look on all of them and ask for their interaction and interlinks.

What is true and real in these discussions?

Let us look at the fundaments of the concept of the Bioeconomy: the renewable biological resources of plants, animals, microrganisms and insects, and the enormous knowledge we have won today on these pillars of life, plus the emerging technological knowledge we own in neighbouring areas by the development of information and communication technologies, nano and cognitive sciences etc. 

As an expression of living nature, biological resources have unique properties: they are renewable, they are carbon neutral, at least environment friendly, with an enormous potential to substitute fossil materials. They hold the potential for cascading, multiplied use and can offer new material properties like durability, stability, strength and even non or minimal toxicity. This is by no means new. But what is new is the immense power by a systematic and systemic exploitation of these new sources of knowledge and combining or integrating them in so-called value chains in biobased products and processes. So far with respect to the closeness of the Bioeconomy to the principle of sustainability, which no one can deny.

And what about Growth? The decisive link for understanding the fabric of Growth and the Bioeconomy has already been mentioned: by a smart combination of the unique selling features of biological resources (renewability, carbon neutrality, multiple and sometimes cascading use) with new, added environmentally benign material properties we generate Growth! 

Let us take wood as an example. It is far more than a material for furniture or toys. Renewability is its embodiment of growth. If put to cascading use, supported by microorganisms, wood, but also starchy plants, vegetable oils and sugar can generate additional values and hereby Growth. Wood might first be used as building material, then in a chipboard and finally converted to energy in form of pellet. Growth means added value, something we sometimes tend to ignore or forget, but also by making toxic chemicals superfluous, by reducing greenhouses and generally preserving our stocks of finite fossils. This can sometimes only been done with the help of so-called top molecules, e.g. succinic or lactic acids etc. They contain several functional elements that open up a multitude of reaction pathways, and when these complex intermediates in a smart combination can be used again in a variety of downstream or even end products such as polymers, lubricants, surfactants, solvents, cosmetics and fibres. Voilá, pure growth or added value! 

Many of such value chains are just being identified by industry in many sectors of the economy all over the world, outside Europe sometimes more intensely and quicker, and here we finally have the justification to speak about a true BioEconomy! 

There are however many opportunities still untabbed and are waiting for a systematic search and research for future use in household materials, sports, textiles, feed additives or so-called renewable chemicals. Important economic and logistic obstacles remain as well as how to convince the customer of the new qualities and features.

So to answer the given question at the beginning: Growth, in the widest sense, Sustainability and the Bioeconomy are not an Uneasy Triangle or a Trilemma as defined in Wikipedia! They form an Easy triangle! 

The European Commission was the first to recognize and publicise this, qualifying its first European Bioeconomy Strategy with the noteworthy title “Innovating for sustainable Growth – A Bioeconomy for Europe”, two years and half ago.

Let us start to introduce these elements in our discussion on the future of our planet.