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Balance missing from bioeconomy

The bioeconomy in itself is neither a good nor a bad thing, but there are risks involved. In order for the bioeconomy to be sustainable, it must take into account Finland’s climate objectives and the goal to stop the degradation of biodiversity and the disappearance of species, along with economic profitability.

Maisema muuttui. Kangaskorpi avohakattiin Oriveden Siitamassa. Kuvat: Juho Kytömäki

A transformed landscape. Clearcut forest in Orivesi. Photo credit: Juho Kytömäki

There is a multitude of expectations resting on bioeconomy: wood-based investments are expected to alleviate Finland’s economy and reduce unemployment. Finland’s strategy of renewable energy rests largely on the burning of wood-based biomass. But is the foundation of the Finnish bioeconomy solid?

What is bioeconomy?

The bioeconomy refers to economically utilizing natural resources in a way that takes into account, among other things, bio-based products, tourism, everyman’s rights and the recreational use of nature.

According to the Finnish bioeconomy strategy, ratified by the Finnish government in 2014, “Bioeconomy refers to an economy that relies on renewable natural resources to produce food, energy, products and services. The bioeconomy will reduce our dependence on fossil resources, prevent biodiversity loss and create new economic growth and jobs in line with the principles of sustainable development.”

In order for the bioeconomy to be considered sustainable, it should safeguard biodiversity, food security and ensure a safe environment.

In order for the bioeconomy to be considered sustainable, it should safeguard biodiversity, food security and ensure a safe environment.

The bioeconomy in Finland

The promotion of the bioeconomy in Finland is largely based on the further exploitation of forests. Prime Minister Sipilä’s Government Program lists an objective to increase logging by 15 million cubic meters yearly, which translates to an increase of 20 % compared to current quotas. Taking into account investments planned in Finland that are based on utilizing wood, the government’s goal to replace coal with wood biomass and to increase the use of wood-based liquid fuels - in addition to the demands of the rest of the forest industry - translates to an actual need for incremental logging that is substantially higher than is defined by the objective.

The stance of the Finnish Government is that bioenergy should always be emissions neutral.

Finland seeks to reach its renewable energy goals through the use of bioenergy, i.e. forest biomass. However, there are problems involved with the harvesting and burning of forest biomass: the capacity of forests to store carbon and thus act as carbon sinks is diminished, and by burning large timber emissions are created in a timeframe in which they should instead be reduced. The harvesting of large timber also disrupts soil ecosystems and reduces the quantity of deadwood of sufficient size that many species depend on. By including the energy use of peat in the framework of a sustainable bioeconomy subtracts from its credibility.

Despite these sustainability issues PM Sipilä’s government seeks to increase the proportion of renewable energy to encompass over 50 % of energy production in the 2020’s through the bioeconomy, and to bring up Finland’s energy self-sufficiency to a level above 55 %, including the use of peat, that is not renewable and its harversting destroys natural carbon reservoirs.

At the same time the government is actively working in the EU to ensure that no sustainability criteria are placed on forest-based energy production. The stance of the Finnish government is that bioenergy should always be emissions neutral. But the climate effects of bioenergy vary according to the type of biomass that is used. The burning of large timber and tree stumps, for example, result in greater emissions than the burning of branches, when considering the timescale in which emissions ought to be reduced. The sustainability criteria of different biomasses are thus a vital part in constructing the bioeconomy’s sustainability as a whole: they can, for their part, be employed to ensure that the use of bioenergy does not diminish biodiversity or inflate emissions.

While the government is pursuing to increase logging, the funding and implementation of conservation has been run down (nature conservation funding has been cut by 60 %). In addition environmental regulation has been undermined and people’s means to influence environmental decision-making compromised.

Towards a sustainable bioeconomy – the demands of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation

It’s all about the balance: In order for bioeconomy to be called sustainable, it must be demonstrated that the conditions for biodiversity are improving and that emissions are decreasing. People must also have the right to a clean environment, in addition to having a say in planning the future of their living environment as stated in the Finnish constitutional law.

The status of forest species and forested habitats is deteriorating.

All of these objectives and actions must be examined against the reality that prevails in the Finnish forests: the situation is getting worse both for forested habitats and for the species depending on them. The amount of threatened species in forests has increased, forests being the primary habitat for 38 percent of all endangered species.

The changes brought about by forestry, such as those affecting forest age structure and the amount of deadwood present in forests, are the primary factors threatening forest species.
Finland has committed to halting the degradation of biodiversity by the year 2020.

Opportunities for the bioeconomy include: production structures can be decentralized, resources conserved and circular economy advanced. But the imbalance between the objectives of the bioeconomy and incremental logging, between the resources committed to environmental regulation and management on the other hand and to the conservation of nature on the other is significant and still escalating. If this imbalance is not addressed, the Finnish bioeconomy and forestry will also lack credibility on the international stage.

The preconditions of a sustainable bioeconomy

  • A desirable status for the environment is reached and monitored. As long as biodiversity is decreasing, the bioeconomy is not sustainable.

  • A sufficient amount of areas are removed from economical use. A network of protected areas of sufficient size and integrity is needed to accommodate nature. In accordance to the objectives of the Nagoya Protocol, 17 % of all habitats in all biomes should be protected.

  • Renewable resources are used sustainably: Finland acts on national level and as a part of the EU in a manner in which the actual climate and diversity impacts of biomass utilization are taken into account. Tree stumps and large trees are essential from the perspectives of climate and biodiversity.

  • The starting points are conserving energy, decreasing the consumption of natural resources, and recycling, so that the focus of the bioeconomy is not on energy production. The bioeconomy is also based on recycling and cutting consumption.

  • Wood is used hierarchically, with a focus on primarily producing long-lasting products of a high level of refinement.

  • Fossil fuels and peat are abandoned as sources of energy.

The bioeconomy should adhere to a hierarchy of use:

Primary focus should be on long standin, highly processed and refined products and on enabling consecutive usage of the same biomass through recycling. With the hierarchical approach competition between the different ways to exploit biomass and the unsustainable use of resources is prevented.

With regards to wood biomass the hierarchy is as follows:

  • wood construction and other wood products
  • biofuels in locations where combustibles are not replaceable with electrification (aircraft, ship traffic and heavy road traffic)
  • energy production

In the future more emphasis should be placed in better utilizing garbage, sludge and agricultural waste by investing, for example, in decentralized production of bio-gas. The use of coal and peat can be substituted with heat pumps, geothermic energy, solar heating and sustainably produced bio-energy and with improving on the energy efficiency of buildings.

The sustainability criteria of bio-energy in Europe

The EU directives for renewable energy and biomass sustainability are being revised in 2016. The current sustainability criteria are insufficient to protect biodiversity and to secure a positive impact on the climate. They also do not encompass solid biofuels, such as forest chips.

Press releases

New energy and climate strategy will permanently diminish Finland’s carbon sinks. 24.11.2016

Finland is falling short of succeeding in two major commitments due to the careless use of forests, 15.9.2016

Read more in finnish.

Policy Brief: Bioeconomy, March 2017

Biotalous_politiikkasuositus2017_eng

Download our policy brief (PDF).

The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation is organizing an event in Brussels on 8th of March:  "Forests and Climate Integrity in LULUCF: Making Sure All Emissions Count"

Event program (PDF)