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Global bioeconomy in the spotlight

Whereas first editions of the summit took place in Berlin in 2015 and 2018, the third edition was organized as a digital conference week from 16th to 20th November. Financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) the conference secretariat in Berlin brought together a packed agenda with 100+ international experts from across the globe. The selection of speakers and session topics during the summit was accompanied by the “International Advisory Council on Global Bioeconomy” (IACGB), which is made up of around 40 international bioeconomy experts.

Future roadmap of IACGB activities

The body was formed as part of the first GBS in 2015 and has been organizing the summits ever since. Now, the IACGB issued an urgent appeal to accelerate the global economic system into a sustainable bio-based system, in particular to exploit the potential of life sciences and digitization and linking them. In its Communiqué, they provide policy recommendations on how to achieve this. Under the title “Expanding the Sustainable Bioeconomy – Vision and Way Forward”, they argue that promotion of jobs in the bioeconomy is an opportunity that needs new educational programs. Further priorities are the mobilization of financial resources for the development of the bioeconomy, more involvement of industry and business, resilient chains, and to involve consumers much more closely through information and incentives. The whitepaper also describes the long-term vision and work program of the IACGB as an international expert forum which is observing and steering international developments. They also recommend that the summit should be held in two years again. However, for now, the financial backing of the council is still open as the German government is not continuing to finance the secretariat and another summit.

But with the growing role of bioeocnomy, the IACGB is convinced that a solution will be found. “There is a sense of urgency to move into sustainable bioeconomy. Nearly 60 countries made amazingly rapid progress in bioeconomy, adapted to local conditions, for example with sustainable high-tech solutions for agriculture, and innovative use of wood,” noted Professor Joachim von Braun, Co-Chair of the Council, by referring to the Global Bioeconomy Policy Report which was published during the GBS 2020. The compendium summarizes how countries across the globe have integrated bioeconomy into governmental action. Accordingly, the trend of developing dedicated bioeconomy policy strategies has prevailed in recent years with 19 countries and macro-regions (Austria, Costa Rica, EU, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Malaysia, Nordic Countries, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, UK, US, East Africa) having adopted strategies since 2010. In parallel, according to the authors, the bioeconomy development is increasingly driven by the engagement of macro-regional and international actors as well as stakeholders from science, civil society and industry.

For Council member and BioInnovative Africa representative Julius Ecuru from Kenya, the bioeconomy in Africa is developing its greatest potential in the area of food: “In developing countries, people are threatened not only by hunger, but above all by malnutrition. Bioeconomy helps to provide more nutritious and safer food.” The successful further development of the bioeconomy is also due to changed consumer behavior, which increasingly demands bio-based products such as vegan leather alternatives made from plant residues. For most experts it’s clear that the aim of the bioeconomy is not only to develop sustainable processes and products, but to equip them with completely new properties. “But all this is only possible thanks to science. It forms the basis for a holistic restructuring of the economic system. This makes it all the more important to support science, especially in times of crisis,” says Council member Elspeth MacRae from New Zealand. In this regard, council Co-Chairwoman Professor Christine Lang emphasized that the bioeconomy can no longer be reduced to the production of individual sustainable products. “Resource-conserving processes that are oriented towards the cycles of nature are increasingly being integrated into existing industrial structures or form the basis for completely new business concepts.” she says.

5 plenary sessions, 12 interactive workshops, 100+ high-level speakers

With five plenary sessions and 12 interactive workshops, the conference covered a broad spectrum of discussions on implementation strategies of bioeconomy and the challenges that comes along with. This time, the summit welcomed official partners from each continental region to strengthen the international character of the GBS. By representing Japan, the ASEAN region, Eastern Africa, the European Union, and Latin America & the Caribbean, major stakeholders from these areas provided insights into different regional bioeconomy approaches. During the sessions the bioeconomy’s role of solving global crises and effects of the corona crisis towards a sustainable bioeconomy as new economic strategy that stabilizes global economies was highlighted, among others. 

“In the wake of pandemic, the global bioeconomy community virtually came together for GBS2020 to explore uncharted territory and advance our sustainable development,” said Morakot Tanticharoen, Senior Advisor to the President of the National Science and Technology Development Agency Thailand (NSTDA). That Europe is willing to play its part in further establishing a biobased economy, was underlined by Peter Wehrheim, Head of Unit for the “Bioeconomy and Food System” at the European Commission: “By scaling up its bioeconomy, the EU can become the first climate-neutral continent.” In the series of workshops called “Regional Bioeconomies and Global Cooperation”, examples of regional bioeconomies in different parts of the world were presented. Using best practice examples, stakeholders tried to show how different situations, starting conditions and requirements for using natural resources can be. The summit helped bringing stakeholders together and initiated a mutual learning process. All workshops – including the various breakout sessions – have been recorded and are available on demand. (for further informations see here)

The workshop sessions also dealt with the question of how bio-based processes can be designed economically, which challenges play a role in the upscaling of bio-based processes – for example with new platform chemicals – and how financing models can look like. Companies such as Dupont, Avantium, Braskem, Lanzatech or Afyren presented examples of their approaches to sustainable chemical products and reported on the current status of planning for demonstration or industrial plants. Many economic players emphasized the importance of broad-based funding consortia, through which numerous demonstration plants for bio-based processes are made possible in the first place. The role of political framework conditions has also been emphasized, as they can have important effects on the economic efficiency of processes and can stimulate the demand for bio-based alternative products in industry, the experts concluded.

Global expert views summarized in an expert survey

During the plenary sessions, further stakeholders provided their perspective on how to achieve a more sustainable economy. (you will find all plenary recordings here) An analysis of the bioeconomy potential and further policy recommendations from an expert perspective were presented with the results of the Global Expert Survey. The survey was organized by Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (Prof. Dr. Thomas Dietz), Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University Bonn (Prof. Dr. Jan Börner), and BIOCOM AG on behalf of the IACBG. In total, more than 280 experts took part in the survey. They were based in 49 different countries, most of which have established bioeconomy policy initiatives. Officials representing European Union institutions and international organizations were also included. The survey consisted of closed-ended and open-ended, mainly compulsory questions. It was conducted online between September and October 2020. The findings reveal important dynamics in bioeconomy innovations and success stories as well as political strategies. “We see that innovations in novel production systems, the waste sector, and health sector are increasingly valued as success stories,” the authors conclude. Most important factors identified as enabling these innovations are knowledge and technology, collaboration and partnerships, as well as a favorable national context. However, according to expert views the current transformation process toward a sustainable bioeconomy is embedded in a complex web of existing laws and standards and marked by uncoordinated governance efforts. The survey provides insights into how existing gaps in the governance framework at national and international levels can be closed in order to advance transformative change towards a sustainable bioeconomy. “One of the most important conclusions we can draw from this survey is that even more intergovernmental cooperation and coordination at the international level is needed to provide enabling governance frameworks for bioeconomy development,” they conclude.

How sustainability criteria and impact funds push forward bioeconomy

In one of the plenary sessions, the investor’s perspectives on bioeconomy were highlighted. They said, that sustainability as a criterion for financial investments and investments is playing an increasingly important role in the financial sector and that many companies working on bioeconomy-related activities benefit from the direct link to climate change. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to align investments in companies specifically to sustainability criteria, explained Morgan Stanley analyst Emily Chew. “Only half of the MSCI World companies report their CO2 emissions,” she said – and other factors such as water consumption and pollution or the handling of garbage are rarely quantified. She also urged the fact that it is difficult for large corporations in particular to collect this data. However, there are increasing numbers of alliances in the financial sector that are putting pressure on large companies. “There are promising green shoots in the financial industry right now,” said Chew. Among others, she referred to the many “Impact Funds” that are entering the stage and which want to promote positive ecological or social aspects with their investments. For now,  they already amount to 715 billion US dollars, as “Global Bio Fund” founder Ipshita Mandal-Johnson emphasized in the panel discussion. She also said, that in 2021 a globally active bio-accelerator is to be founded, in which 170 organizations will be involved. The European Investment Bank has also taken up this development, which, according to Werner Schmidt, Director of the Department for Environment and Sustainable Development, intends to invest one trillion euros in ecological sustainability in the coming decade and will consistently align itself with the Paris goals from 2021.

How investments can be directed into bioeconomy

The following debate focused on how investments in the bioeconomy can be directed. Michal Devir, co-founder of venture capital fund Rimonim Agroin Israel, described her observation: “People are starting to look specifically for investments in fields that are socially relevant – such as the bioeconomy.” It has always been difficult to mobilize money for early phases of technical developments, which is why this is strongly promoted by the state in Israel. “We have the world’s highest per capita risk capital and 420 accelerators, resulting in 1,000 new start-ups every year” said Devir. Ray Dhirani, Head of Sustainable Finance at WWF UK, applauded the fact that banks and financial investors show growing interest in backing sustainability, but a lot of clarification is still needed, he said. “The driving force is that investments in sustainability offer a competitive advantage in the battle for talent and customers,” Dhirani explained. For such investments, however, science-based evaluation standards are essential if one does not only want to produce niche products. “That is ambitious, but it can achieve something that really benefits people and the planet,” he concluded.

Benjamin Simmons, founder of the “Green Growth Knowledge Partnership” platform, focused on the importance of network platforms: “There are three ways in which platforms can contribute.” These are collaborative knowledge transfer and the addressing of knowledge gaps, collection and coherent processing of data as well as the offer of webinars, workshops and debates.

The role of regulators and governments

The experts also emphasized that the Covid 19 crisis had shown how quickly it was possible to come together and temporarily wipe away complications from regulations and funding in order to save lives. “In an emergency, we can get things moving better,” Simmons concluded with reference to species extinction and climate change that this emergency is definitely there. “From an ecological point of view, we already have other crises. Can we create the same awareness of urgency and make more such collaborations possible,” he asked. However, speakers and experts during the summit not only referred to economy-driven potentials, but also included social perspectives. “The transition towards bio-based economies is not only about production but also about sustainable consumption. GBS2020 covered both sides of the equation and brought together experts from around the world to discuss regional differences in lifestyle and culture,” says Torfi Jóhannesson, Senior Adviser at the Nordic Council of Ministers. Top-class researchers such as Mary Maxon, Associate Laboratory Director for Biosciences, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, contributed to the GBS as well. “A vibrant bioeconomy is economic activity that is reinforced by the safe, secure, ethical and reciprocal use of biological data, as well as by international standards and norms in research and business operations,” she said.