A window of opportunity has opened for Europe and Russia to develop strategic partnerships that break links between economic growth and social and environmental harm. That opportunity is called bioeconomy.
The time is right. Russia’s economy is at a crossroads. It depends heavily on oil exports and has been hit hard by falling oil prices. But this is not the only reason for Russia to follow the bioeconomy path.
Global population growth and the need to address climate change will drastically alter the dynamics of supply and demand for water, food, energy and land in the coming decades. There will be rising political, social and economic tensions over access to global natural resources – but also great opportunities in transforming our fossil-based economy into a new bio-based, resource efficient and low carbon one.
This leaves Russia in an enviable position. It has 20% of the world’s forest resources and freshwater reserves, and is one of the world’s largest producers of grain. However, Russia reaps relatively little of this economic potential. Russia’s bioeconomy sectors generate just 10% of those in the EU, which have an estimated turnover of 2 trillion euros.
For Russia to realise its bioeconomy potential it needs significant structural reforms, including long-term policies and investments in research, education, innovation and infrastructure. These should focus on forests, Russia’s most important renewable resource.
This could transform Russia’s forest sector into a major producer of bioenergy and industrial products. Recent advances in science mean forest fibres can be transformed into high value-added products like speciality chemicals, food ingredients, bioplastics and composites, building materials, pharmaceuticals or textiles.
A modernised forest-based bioeconomy would create new jobs in rural and industrial areas, reduce fossil fuel dependence, and improve the environmental sustainability of primary production and processing industries.
The most effective way to address new global challenges is to build global answers for the main regions of the world. The bioeconomy offers Europe and Russia a strategic area for long-term cooperation to address the grand challenge of our times: how to decouple economic growth from environmental and social degradation.
No European country could solve this challenge alone; no sector can be isolated from interrelated ones. Despite the current difficulties between Russia and Europe, we believe that cross-border bioeconomy partnerships at scientific, policy, economic and business levels should be brought to the European and Russian political agendas. The European Forest Institute works towards this goal by e.g. arranging a Young Leadership Programme for future leaders in the field of bioeconomy later this year.
The benefits would be enormous. For Russia, the bioeconomy path could catalyse social, technological, and economic transformation. For Europe, it would build a long-term approach toward economic cooperation, tighter market integration and a better business environment for bio-based products and technologies.
Our world is changing faster than ever. We need new dreams, visions, and the courage to implement them. The bioeconomy will not solve all the challenges we will face in the coming decades. But unless we take the bioeconomy seriously, we will not find sustainable solutions to address those challenges.
This article is written by
- Esko Aho, Former Prime Minister of Finland and EFI’s Strategic Advisor on Europe-Russia cooperation
- Göran Persson, Former Prime Minister of Sweden and President of Thinkforest and
- Marc Palahí, EFI Director