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19th Apr 2019

Magazine

Bioeconomy is a win-win strategy for Finland

Nokia is synonymous with mobile phones, but the world-famous Finnish company was in fact started as a paper mill, on the banks of the Nokianvirta river over 100 years ago - hence the name.

Paper is a typical bio-economic based production, using water and wood as prime resources.

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  • The output of the Finnish bioeconomy currently exceeds €60bn and more than 300,000 people are employed in the sector. (Photo: EUobserver)

A Nokia phone was used when the world's first GSM call was made in 1991 and the company defined the mobile industry for over a decade.

Nokia's tax revenues paid for a large share of Finland's generous social model, but Nokia lost its dominance and was sold to Microsoft in 2014.

In that same year, Finland turned back to nature and launched a bioeconomy strategy to help create future jobs and wealth.

The bioeconomy comprises those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials and energy.

"What are the big problems in the world? Lack of resources and lack of bio-diversity. So, when a country is dependent on exports, like Finland is – we have to think what kind of solutions we can offer to these big problems in the entire world," environment minister Kimmo Tiilikainen explains in an interview with EUobserver.

It is not all about making Finland better, he says. It is a win-win strategy.

"Our government wanted Finland to be a frontrunner in bioeconomy, circular economy and clean-tech solutions for two reasons. We can solve the huge environmental problems in the world if we can find these kinds of solutions, and it brings markets for our companies and sustainable employment," he said.

Global scarcity of natural resources

In 2030, the world will need 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water than today, the government estimated when Finland formulated the bioeconomy strategy.

The growing demand will result in a scarcity of natural resources and push their prices up. It was thought that availability of raw materials and the efficiency of their use would thus become a new competitive advantage for Finland.

The yearly output of the Finnish bioeconomy currently exceeds €60bn, and more than 300,000 people are employed in the sector. The bioeconomy strategy aims to create as many as 100,000 additional jobs in Finland by 2025.

"We are investing in research and innovation, creating new materials, new kinds of chemicals based on biomass and, of course, in the energy sector and transport, and new opportunities in water and waste," Tiilikainen said.

Tiilikainen represents the Centre Party, a centrist, liberal and agrarian political party in Finland. He is also an organic farmer and forester himself.

"We have also learnt a lot during the process and new aspects are being added. The concept and thinking of the circular economy must be adapted into the bioeconomy," he says.

"In the circular economy the target is to improve the material efficiency and avoid material consumption - reuse and recycle. It can create new types of business models and this kind of new economic thinking must be applied, no matter if the materials are renewable or non-renewable."

Replacing plastic with biomass

"Most promising is the development of new bio-based material," Tiilikainen said, adding that "it will take five to ten years before they have full potential as commercial solutions, but research, development and innovative work has created new kinds of opportunities".

Plastic is one example.

"We have big talk in the whole world - and in the EU as well - about the increasing consumption of plastic, and whether we have a chance to develop a more sustainable material to replace plastic. Developments of bio-based materials for packaging are promising," Tiilikainen said.

But the changes won't come with one single new invention, he suggests.

"It is a process. Our forest-based industries produce cardboard for liquids, milk or juice. The development has led to solutions where more and more of the cardboard can be made from biomass and where the layer of plastic becomes thinner and thinner all the time. Some day we will see packaging that is not using plastic at all. So it is not like that one day a totally new product comes in, but a continuous process where we replace the use of plastics with bio-material."

While the EU developed its first bioeconomy strategy in 2012, only a few member states have formulated a national strategy, with Germany first in 2011, followed by Finland (2014), Spain (2015), Italy (2016) and France (2017), according to a commission report from November 2017.

"Our strategy has been developed for Finland, so it can't be copied as such to other countries. But I think for sure that EU countries can copy what is relevant for them for their process. And it is not only within the EU, also developing countries can benefit from the know-how on for example sustainable forest management and water management."

Russian potential

Finland's bioeconomy is expected to reduce the country's dependence on fossils, which could perhaps serve also as inspiration for Finland's large neighbour to the east, Russia, which is heavily dependent on exporting fossil fuels, gas and oil.

"I believe that it will take time but there is a great potential for them to turn from a fossil-based economy to a more bio-based economy and also to use the concept of the circular economy. They are very much interested in it. So that has huge potential because Russia is so rich in different resources – not only fossil ones," said Tiilikainen.

"I think that we need more cooperation in this field, between Finland and Russia, and between the whole EU and Russia in the future," he said.

The EU has close to 182m hectares of forests and other wooded land, corresponding to 43 percent of EU land area, which is slightly more than the land used for agriculture (some 41 percent).

Sweden accounted for 16.8 percent, Spain (15.2 percent) and Finland (12.7 percent) of the total wooded land in the EU.

The three countries were the only EU member states to record double-digit shares, according to 2016 figures from Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU.

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