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Back to the future? From wood to coal to a sustainable bioeconomy

The historic transition from wood to hard coal was successfully made in the 19th century. We are now on our way to a sustainable bioeconomy. Research carried out by the Faculty of the Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Freiburg reveals what history can teach us about the transition to a more sustainable, biobased economy.

Alex Giurca, doctoral student in the BBW ForWerts bioeconomy graduate programme at the Chair of Forest and Environmental Policy at the University of Freiburg. © private

The bioeconomy promises answers to many global challenges, from population growth and environmental degradation to resource scarcity and climate change. The bioeconomy is presented in political strategies in many countries around the world as a path towards a new and sustainable future. Bioeconomy is about producing the main components of materials, chemicals and energy from renewable, biobased resources.

The forest sector plays a central role in a bioeconomy. With their wealth of natural resources, know-how and infrastructures, the forest and timber industries are set to become a key component in the bioeconomy1. However, many of the concepts and sustainability narratives presented in a bioeconomy context are not new. Political analyses show that the bioeconomy debate is based on and recycles many arguments from historical discourses about forests (e.g. growth limits and ecological modernisation)2.

In fact, forest sector representatives claim that they are the bioeconomy, giving the impression that there have already been sustainable bioeconomic activities in the sector in the past3. The saying goes: "Do you consider sustainability a modern phenomenon? We’ve thought so for the past 300 years"4.

Torben Flörkemeier, doctoral student in the Chair of Forest and Forestry History at the University of Freiburg © University of Freiburg

Since the debate on the sustainable use of resources is not new, the question being asked is to what extent does the bioeconomy differ from other sustainability transformations? Transformations are long-term, radical and structural changes in society and technologies that lead to new forms of production and consumption. These transformation processes are particularly influenced by how sustainability is understood, promoted and implemented. The definition of “sustainable” is interpreted differently by different players and changes over time because it is continually being renegotiated on the social level. For example, there are many views about the relationship between bioeconomy and sustainability5.

From wood to coal ...

Historical examples of resource management adapted to nature’s regenerative capacity can be traced back to the early Middle Ages in forestry and agriculture. The primary objective was fair distribution of resource use for securing social subsistence6, 7. In the early 18th century, the future of the mining industry in Saxony was threatened by sometimes devastating forest conditions: large quantities of construction and firewood were required for the expansion of mining and use in charcoal-operated stoves in smelting works. Vast swathes of forest around mines were cut down and often not replaced. Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a senior mining administrator in the German state of Saxony, responded to this resource crisis with the book "Sylvicultura oeconomica" (1713)8 in which he proposed a “continuous, permanent and sustainable utilisation” as the rule of forestry, and which made him the first person to use the terms sustainable and sustainability. Despite von Carlowitz’ call for sustainable forestry, many regions in German-speaking countries experienced supply bottlenecks in the 18th century. Therefore, enlightened forest management strategies now aim to achieve sustainable timber yields and rational wood management. Forests became the site of scheduled and systematic timber production that would supply valuable wood. The state had an economic interest in growing the timber used for shipbuilding, industry and mining in even-aged pure stocks6, 9, 10.

The main energy turnaround in the past was based on this type of energy production: coal mining in the Altenwald pit in Sulzbach (Saarland) around 1870. © University of Freiburg

This type of "sustainable" forestry was unable to supply the growing population with sufficient wood for energy. Therefore, in the late 18th century, sovereigns endeavoured to encourage people to substitute wood with hard coal by offering financial incentives and promoting hard coal stoves, amongst other things. Initially, there was a reluctance to use hard coal due to weak markets and lack of public acceptance. This changed in the first half of the 19th century. In response to the industrial development in England and as a result of national liberal ideas in Germany, strategic alliances between state players, scientists and industrialists who were calling for greater levels of extraction, the use of hard coal grew. Their goal was “sustainable” – lasting – growth of the economy for “jobs, prosperity and competitive advantage”.

Parallel to the establishment of these social alliances, the economic use of hard coal for energy production became prevalent in the German-speaking world in the 1830s. This change in the energy supply system for households, trade and industry from renewable to fossil fuels is referred to as the historic energy transition and, in terms of energy production, formed the basis for industrialisation in Germany. Industrialisation radically changed society, societal structures and technologies over the long term. In the 19th century, it was generally believed that this transformation was sustainable. The expectation was that the transition in material use would enable wood to be sustainably managed as a natural resource.

Back to the bioeconomy?

Over time however it became clear that dependence on fossil resources resulting from the historical transition to coal for producing energy was structurally unsustainable. What was once praised as the driver of Germany's Industrial Revolution is now causing some of the world's biggest problems in the 21st century such as climate change and environmental degradation. Therefore, future use of hard coal and oil is currently at the centre of the political debate surrounding the transition from a fossil fuel-based to a biobased economy. In other words, if Germany wants to achieve its climate goals, it needs to significantly reduce its dependence on fossil resources.

Interestingly, a return to wood as an energy source is presented as a way out of the climate change dilemma. Initiating a new energy transition and establishing an economy based on renewable resources is something that was formulated in Germany’s bioeconomy strategies in 2011 and 201411, 12. The long-term goal is the transition to a bioeconomy that derives the main components of materials, products and energy from renewable instead of fossil resources. This new, sustainable economic model promises to deliver new jobs and safeguard Germany’s technological and economic competitiveness in the long term11.

Over the three centuries or so since von Carlowitz's (1713) first call for sustainable forestry, the understanding of sustainability has been subject to constant change. © Creative Commons

Just as with the historical transformation from wood to hard coal, political players, research organisations and (established) industries play an important role in the transition from a fossil fuel-based to a biobased economy. Different government-funded bioeconomy clusters have been tasked with synchronising value chains and developing new processes and products. Given their large resource base, the forestry and agriculture sectors are key players in these networks.

The issue of the sustainability of resources is once again a matter of dispute. Not all players believe that a complete transition from a fossil fuel-based to a biobased economy is actually the right way out of current environmental problems. While some forestry and timber industry representatives assume that the supply of wood will be sufficient for the growing bioeconomy, other players are more skeptical and see conflicting needs and high wood prices in Germany as major obstacles in the transition to a bioeconomy. They also believe that using wood to produce energy is a threat to the forest ecosystem and increases CO2 emissions.

Lessons from the future

There are remarkable parallels between historical and current sustainability transformations: both promise prosperity, growth and jobs; both lack competitiveness and public acceptance; both present technical solutions for environmental problems while disputing a common understanding of sustainability. The understanding of sustainability has changed significantly since von Carlowitz (1713) first used the term. Due to the complexity of the issue, interpretations of sustainability are always changing - or in other words: "Sustainability is not just a property but an entitlement"6.

We seem to have come full circle in society’s effort to return to a biobased society. While this is a step in the right direction, the transition to a bioeconomy is also associated with the risk that the prosperity resulting from this particular historical energy transition may be accompanied by (unexpected) effects on sustainability. In fact, the bioeconomy concept is not intrinsically sustainable. While the principal aim is to support global sustainable development, economic issues clearly dominate. Likewise, the concept is based on technocratic and instrumental approaches that regard forests as industrial production facilities. Increased demand for wood brings financial gain but risks undermining sustainable management, which, referring to von Carlowitz, the forest sector proudly presents as a mission statement.

We are currently facing major social challenges. But challenges also offer opportunities: we have the opportunity to make our economy more efficient and more sustainable. This requires a vision that takes into account the importance of a bioeconomy - and crucially - the willingness to negotiate sustainability again and again according to social needs and based on social, ecological and economic criteria.


Alex Giurca is a doctoral student in the bioeconomy graduate programme BBW ForWerts. He works in the Department of Forest and Environmental Policy at the University of Freiburg, supervised by Prof. Dr. Daniela Kleinschmit.

Torben Flörkemeier is a doctoral student in the Department of Forest and Forestry History at the University of Freiburg. He holds a scholarship from the German Federal Foundation for the Environment. His doctoral work – supervised by Prof. Dr. Uwe E. Schmidt – focuses on the historical energy transition from wood to hard coal in the 19th century.

This article is a guest contribution.


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2 Pülzl, H.; Kleinschmit, D.; Arts, B. Bioeconomy – an emerging meta-discourse affecting forest discourses? Scand. J. For. Res. 2014, 29, 386–393, doi:10.1080/02827581.2014.920044.

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Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/back-to-the-future-from-wood-to-coal-to-a-sustainable-bioeconomy