Exclusive interview with Henna Virkkunen, Member of the European Parliament, EPP Group
What is needed for building a resilient forest-based bioeconomy?
For the development of the European bioeconomy, new innovations and ideas are needed. There are already plenty of examples of advanced biotechnology in the fields of agriculture, health, and the energy industry so the potential for new innovations is huge. Europe can and should be the forerunner developing the bioeconomy as an integral part of the greater economy.
Sustainability means respecting biological diversity. This requires responsible forest management and cooperation between different actors. The government, forest industry, and NGOs for environmental protection and nature conservation have to be in continuous dialogue. It is in everybody’s interest to ensure that natural resources are treated with care. This approach offers a firm basis for a prosperous bio-based industry.
What are common misconceptions about the bioeconomy within Europe?
Attitudes and expectations towards the bioeconomy are generally positive in most of Europe. At the same time, in many European countries forests have been logged to excess and priceless natural resources have already been heavily damaged. Because of this, conservation of remaining natural resources is and must be one of our main priorities where nature and its diversity are in danger. However, it bears remembering that there are also countries like Finland with vast forest resources that are well cared for and as such can continue to be utilized in a sustainable manner.
This is the biggest misconception, that developing the bioeconomy would be against sustainability. However, the bioeconomy can be one of the solutions used to achieve the EU’s climate goals. This is especially in the northern countries, where forests serve as major carbon sinks, absorbing large amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.
How can the bioeconomy lead to new investments in the EU?
There is a lot of business potential in the fields of biotechnology and bioenergy, which provides incentives to invest in the bioeconomy as well. Traditional forest industry products are being joined by a wide range of new wood-based bioproducts, including fiber packages, biofuels, composites, biopolymers, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics products, and clothing.
The bioeconomy often goes hand in hand with the circular economy, the development of which is one of the main priorities of the EU at the moment. Bioenergy also plays a key role in achieving targets for renewable energy. Developing new renewable energy solutions answers to existing concerns (such as utilizing biomaterials like waste or by-products and side streams from pulp and paper mills) saves natural resources and helps to both cut CO2 emissions and fight climate change.
The creation of new products and processes requires investments in R&D. Since the public grants for R&D have decreased in many European countries, close cooperation between universities, research institutions, and companies is needed. Companies should also utilize EU’s Horizon2020 program, where 80 billion euros are reserved for research and innovation.
How does the bioeconomy affect the supply and demand?
The development of new products creates new business opportunities. The products may change over time, as has already happened in the pulp and paper industry, but there is always a demand for quality products that are up-to-date. Highly refined products and know-how are the keys for the success and competitiveness of the European industry now and in the future.
How can we improve awareness of the bioeconomy?
The ongoing work in the EU has already started up a discussion on the bioeconomy. The European Commission and the European Parliament are working on a variety of energy and climate issues, such as the EU emission trading system (EU ETS), land use, land-use change, and forestry policy (LULUCF) as well as the revision of the renewable energy directive (RES). Especially important for bioeconomy and forest industry is the ongoing work on the sustainability criteria for biomasses, as well as refining the calculation methods for measuring carbon sinks.
All these policies are very important considering the future possibilities of the bioeconomy. Although the task is not easy and EU has to be careful not to over-regulate the bioeconomy, it is a great opportunity to bring the benefits of developing the bioeconomy into discussion.
This interview was done as part of the Forest City Project.
Henna Virkkunen has been a member of the European Parliament since 2014 and is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP). Her primary committee is the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and she is a substitute member for the committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN). Ms. Virkkunen is also a member of the Delegation for relations with South Africa, and a substitute for the Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula.