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The bioeconomy – buzzword or future concept?

The use of wood and other renewable raw materials for the production of industrial goods presents opportunities and risks. Is the shift from petroleum to wood possible and how can such a shift be best achieved? A research project at the University of Freiburg combines forestry know-how with political science methodology in order to sound out the bioeconomy.

Alex Giurca is a forestry scientist who is interested in the “big picture”, as he calls it. In his doctoral thesis in the Department of Forest and Environmental Policy at the University of Freiburg, Giurca is working with Prof. Dr. Daniela Kleinschmit in a project entitled "Lignocellulose-based bioeconomy: actors and their networks". "We are trying to understand what the shift to a wood-based bioeconomy is all about. What does the term include and which actors are involved? And is the shift possible?"

Raw material “wood” – what can we make from it? © Alex Giurca

To find answers to these questions, Giurca and his colleague Michael Stein conducted standardised interviews with experts from universities, research institutes and industry, and evaluated the answers empirically. What does the “bioeconomy” mean to individual actors and how do they perceive their role and the role of their institution?

"Many people from the forestry sector are telling us, those of us who are involved in forestry are the bioeconomy, we have always done what the bioeconomy does! However, there is no clear agreement on what the "bioeconomy" actually is. The concept is still vague, still in development. At first everyone says: Yes, we’ll do that!" Some of the experts who were interviewed describe the "bioeconomy" as a shell that needs filling with substance. In the best-case scenario, the concept can lead many very different actors to a common path away from petroleum and towards an economy based on renewable raw materials. In so-called "biorefineries", for example, the wood component lignin can be further processed into textiles, fuels and plastics, products that are to date made from petroleum1. At present, however, the bioeconomy is mostly the burning of wood for energy production. The aim is to improve the value chains for wood, especially for deciduous trees such as native beech and oak, which need to be reevaluated vis-à-vis coniferous trees both from a forestry and environmental perspective2.

The bioeconomy arena

Forestry scientist Alex Giurca runs a blog where he presents research results in a way that is easy to understand. He has drawn a humorous sketch of the “bioeconomy arena” where combatants from different sectors fight for supremacy in the bioeconomy3. © Alex Giurca

Through network analysis, Giurca has identified obstacles and opportunities associated with the shift to the bioeconomy: "It is important to know that social capital, that is, people and institutions with the necessary know-how, already exists. We should build on these already existing networks and develop them, but "these networks must not be closed cycles, but open to cooperation and exchange!” This means that the shift to the bioeconomy should not only take place within research and the (already established) industry, but include as many other actors as possible: the public, agriculture, forestry and the wood sector, companies, societies and associations.

The original concept of the "bioeconomy" includes not only the replacement of petroleum, natural gas and coal with renewable raw materials, but also a sustainable economy within the scope of biological and physical possibilities, i.e. a move away from unlimited quantitative growth towards the qualitative growth of diversity4. Giurca has been carrying out research in Finland and Sweden for several years and sees Finland in particular as a pioneer in the concept of a "circular economy" that aims to extract more value from existing (renewable) resources with less waste5,6.

Open structures and a circular economy

The participation of all social groups is necessary for such a fundamental economic change. In their publication, Alex Giurca and his colleague Philipp Späth7 point out possible policy measures that could be implemented to support the transformation process. This includes the long-term financing of research and development as well as increasing the price of fossil fuel-based products with something like a CO2 tax. As far as possible pitfalls are concerned, they identify the potential risk that individual actors or already established networks will use the term “bioeconomy” for their own purposes while simultaneously slowing down major change. However, Giurca is not afraid of controversy relating to the subject of bioeconomy, quite the contrary: "It's very good that there is an open and critical debate in Germany."

Alex Giurca carries out research on the boundary of forestry and political science. © Alex Giurca, private

ForWerts against one-track specialists

Alex Giurca exemplifies the values of the “bioeconomy” concept. His doctoral thesis is part of the BBW ForWerts graduate programme9, which sets out to educate 50 to 100 students from a broad range of different disciplines and provide them with knowledge on bioeconomic issues10. Forestry science, chemistry, biology and engineering students and supervisors exchange experiences at regular meetings. Giurca comments: “It is exciting to discuss overarching concepts like the biobased sustainable economy with people from other disciplines. We all learn how to communicate specific terms and discover other ways of looking at things.”

Giurca stresses the importance of an open and integrative process: “I believe that a bioeconomy is a good concept. We have to make this change as quickly as possible as we have no alternatives. Climate change and conflict over petroleum cannot go on forever. But it is also important that the concept is open for discussion. If now is our chance to create a new economy, it should not just be the established industries that determine what form it takes; as many people as possible should participate in shaping the bioeconomy.”


1 https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/lignin-a-natural-resource-with-huge-potential/

2 https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/the-bioeconomy-offers-opportunities-for-baden-wuerttembergs-forests/

3 https://giurcalex.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/the-bioeconomy-arena/

4 Grefe, C (2016) Bioökonomie – Wie eine grüne Idee gekapert wird. Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, August 2016 https://www.blaetter.de/archiv/jahrgaenge/2016/august/biooekonomie-wie-eine-gruene-idee-gekapert-wird

5 https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jun/06/the-circular-economy-enters-the-world-stage-with-finland-leading-the-way?CMP=share_btn_tw&cn=ZmF2b3JpdGU%3D

6 http://www.bioeconomy.fi/publication-finland-is-a-forerunner-in-new-bioeconomy-innovations/#.WSxWxzxXUs5.twitter

7 https://www.envgov.uni-freiburg.de/de/prof-sugov/Team-SuGov/philipp-spaeth%20

8 Giurca A, Späth P (2017): A forest-based bioeconomy for Germany? Strengths, weaknesses and policy options for lignocellulosic biorefineries. J Clean Prod, 2017; 153: 51-62. : http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.03.156

9 Bioeconomy Baden-Württemberg: exploring innovative value chains

10 Funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts 


Giurca A, Späth P (2017): A forest-based bioeconomy for Germany? Strengths, weaknesses and policy options for lignocellulosic biorefineries. J Clean Prod, 2017; 153: 51-62. : http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.03.156

Hodge D, Brukas V, Giurca A (2017): Forests in a bioeconomy: bridge, boundary or divide? Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research, DOI: 10.1080/02827581.2017.1315833

Grefe, C (2016) Global Gardening - Bioökonomie - Neuer Raubbau oder Wirtschaftsform der Zukunft? Kunstmann Verlag


Akteursplattform Bioökonomie Baden-Württemberg aims to bring actors from different disciplines together: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/de/angebot/akteursplattform-biooekonomie-baden-wuerttemberg/

Alex Giurca from the University of Freiburg: https://www.ifp.uni-freiburg.de/team/ma-fopof/alex-giurca?set_language=de

Blog Alex Giurca: https://giurcalex.wordpress.com/


Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/the-bioeconomy-buzzword-or-future-concept