The forest industry is often portrayed as a sunset business, which has no real place in today’s world of the internet and innovation. This perception is completely wrong and concerns about accelerating climate change have opened up numerous opportunities for environmental friendly forest products, such as bioenergy. However, the opportunities for forest bio-applications extend far beyond just energy generation and, as shale gas reserves are exploited, providing reasonably priced energy with emissions lower than those of coal, so the importance of deploying forest biomass for higher value-added competitive products is set to grow.
A valuable alternative to oil
Almost 300 million tons of oil-based plastics are consumed each year and renewable raw materials contribute only a small fraction of the raw material base. Consumers are interested in ecologically sound alternatives and new evolving technologies mean that renewable forest biomass offers a sustainable, alternative raw material in plastics. In fact plastics are just one example of how woody biomass can provide a viable alternative to oil, and there are many other sectors too including textiles, chemicals and, even bio-based pharmaceuticals.
The bio-economy can provide business opportunities, which the petrochemical industry cannot meet alone. However, in a market dominated by giant petrochemical plants and a world built on centuries of oil resources, the growing bio-economy struggles to compete economically.
The emergence of new, intelligent solutions requires cooperation between cross-industrial actors and public bodies such as the European Union. Radical innovations cannot be driven by individual forest companies as they often require a complete renewal of industry systems on a scale similar to that which we have seen take place in the mobile phone industry. Skilled professionals from the forest sector must create wide-ranging co-operation with experts from various industrial sectors including nanotechnology and biotechnology and developers of new materials.
Driven by market demand
So how could the European Union support this? The EU has the opportunity to accelerate the emergence of the bio-economy by connecting material and chemical industries with climate policy. This has already been achieved in the energy field with the EU endorsing renewable energy, spurring research activities and encouraging investments. One could say that the renewable energy market was created through legislation so why wouldn’t the EU do the same for other bio-economy sectors like biobased materials and chemicals? In the long term, these changes will be driven by market demand but first they need to be accelerated by legislation, which will open up opportunities to all players, small, large, local and global.
The Forest industry has the opportunity to rise to the top of the bio-economy as an acceptable raw material, and a sound business platform for the future. The alternative is to remain as a follower, and to stand by and watch as others exploit the trend and reap the rewards. North American companies have been investing heavily in the bio-economy and the Asians have been quick to seize the opportunity and are already filing more than double the number of patents as the EU in the nano-and micro-fiber sector.
Now is the time to lobby the EU
With a new European Commission due to take office in 2014 now is the time to lobby the EU to put the bio-economy into practice and to introduce clear regulation linking chemicals and materials in climate policies. If this is done successfully Europe will enjoy a buoyant forest industry sector in the decades ahead.
Call to action: "The new European Commission must take a joined-up approach to climate change policy and consider both materials and chemicals in promoting the use of renewable, raw materials for the bio-economy.”"
Jukka Kantola has broad experience of the forestry sector. He has held executive positions in the industry in both Europe and Asia, including working for a western company operating in the Asian market and representing an Asian company in its operations in Europe. Hence he has a profound understanding of the challenges on both ends.