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14th Dec 2018

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Nordic bioeconomy for sustainable change

  • A good example of the potential for the new bioeconomy is the recent promising research on how to turn wood fibres into textiles for clothes. (Photo: Smart Textiles/Anna Sigge)

The Nobel Laureate 2016, Bob Dylan, recorded the memorable lyrics to "the times they are a-changin" in 1964. His words have never been truer when it comes to the bioeconomy.

The bioeconomy holds the solutions to many of the most pressing environmental and ecological challenges of our time. These include the sustainable production of sufficient nutritious and safe food for our growing population, developing new and more environmentally friendly sources of energy, and combating global warming.

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"The bioeconomy comprises those parts of the economy that make responsible use of renewable biological resources from land and water for the mutual benefit of business, society, and nature," says dr. Hörður G. Kristinsson, Chief Science Innovation Officer at Matís Iceland, and chair of the Nordic Bioeconomy Panel.

"The bioeconomy offers tremendous opportunities to accelerate sustainable growth and development in the Nordic countries and will be instrumental in order for the world to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals," Kristinsson adds.

To maintain a continuous dialogue between Nordic and European bodies, the Nordic Bioeconomy Panel closely follows the developments within Europe. Kristinsson was also a member of the original European Bioeconomy panel.

The Nordic panel hosts permanent observers from its European counterpart.

Nordic pragmatism

Nordic countries are strongly positioned to be global leaders in the production and utilisation of bio-resources, which enhance both competitiveness and sustainability. The region is extremely rich in biological resources from the ocean and land. It also has a long and successful history of utilising these resources in a sustainable manner.

However, using natural resources sustainably is not just a matter of employing the right technologies. It is also about being able to see the bigger picture and delivering holistic results.

As Mr. Dagfinn Hoybraten, general secretary at the Nordic Council of Ministers puts it: "The famous Nordic pragmatism is an important ingredient in the equation because sustainability isn't only about the environment or the social conditions – it is also about economy".

Hoybraten adds that: "If the business models are not economically sustainable, they will never become main-stream. What we have seen in the Nordic cooperation is that by firstly establishing a common Nordic vision on sustainable business models, based on our common values and secondly providing resources and platforms for cooperation we can facilitate and speed up existing processes. Collaboration on the basis of shared values is the key element."

25 bioeconomy cases

In an effort to draft a joint Nordic bioeconomy strategy – the first of its kind – the Nordic Bioeconomy Panel, Nordic Council of Ministers and Danish think-tank Sustainia have compiled and analysed information and data on 25 innovative Nordic bioeconomy cases.

The cases were selected and evaluated based on five criteria, all necessary for a sustainable and innovative bioeconomy. The aim was to detect the most significant trends in the utilisation of biological resources in the region, as well as to identify ways of optimising resource efficiency and value creation in the bioeconomy.

"The 25 cases are very diverse and come from different industries," says Kristinsson. "The analysis of their environmental, economic and societal impact has enabled us to learn what characterises the Nordic bioeconomy and identify some of the best practices for sustainable change."

A good example of the potential for the new bioeconomy is the recent promising research on how to turn wood fibres into textiles for clothes. "We have the potential to put the Nordic region on the fashion map of the World, and at the same time help reduce use of water and pesticides for textile production," says Torfi Johannesson at the Nordic Council of Ministers.

He insists "the numbers talk for themselves: Cotton is produced on only 2% of the arable land worldwide but still requires 15-20% of all pesticides we use." Adding that "most of it is irrigated and requires huge amounts of water. If we can replace some of the cotton with fibers from the well-maintained Nordic forests, we have already made huge steps towards sustainable textiles."

Replace, upgrade, circulate, collaborate

The selected cases are not only interesting individually. Together they also illustrate four key themes that can be defined as the strongholds of the Nordic bioeconomy: replace, upgrade, circulate, collaborate.

1. Replace refers to efforts in substituting fossil-based and other unsustainable materials with bio-based alternatives.

2. Upgrade is about creating higher value products and services from resources throughout the entire value chain.

3. Circulate entails developing a circular bioeconomy that uses waste and side streams as inputs into production, while taking into account the sustainability and regenerative capacity of the ecosystem.

4. Collaborate describes initiatives where cross-sectoral co-operation is a key factor. Cases in this category include strategic public-private partnerships with participation from industry, authorities and research institutions, as well as communities that have set ambitious goals for moving towards a sustainable and circular bioeconomy.

Direction for sustainable change

"These four pillars display strongholds of the Nordic bioeconomy, but more importantly, they describe a direction for sustainable change," says Liv la Cour Belling, project coordinator at the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The case catalogue is supposed to inspire the development of a new joint Nordic strategy on the bioeconomy.

The strategy will take into account the Nordic countries' different national approaches to the bioeconomy and encourage co-operation, knowledge sharing and technology transfer across borders, as well as between the various sectors of the bioeconomy.

The next steps include taking the Nordic approach into the wider European arena. The Nordic Council of Ministers is a priority area coordinator for the bioeconomy within the EU's Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region.

The experience of the Nordic countries in this area can be easily transferred to the wider Baltic Sea Region, including Germany and Poland, both of which have been very active in the development of the bioeconomy.

Indeed, as Bob Dylan said, the times are a-changin', and to succeed we need to have the courage to think very differently, find new solutions and come together in collaborations that transcend sectors and involve partners we never imagined working with before.

Torfi Johannesson is the senior advisor for agriculture and forestry and Liv la Cour Belling is the project officer for bioeconomy strategy at the Nordic Council of Ministers. Pall Tomas Finnsson is the communications advisor at Finnsson & Co. which specialises in green growth.

Disclaimer: This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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