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Column: Lots of enthusiasm for bioeconomy, but government must tread carefully

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 12/1/2017 2:33:00 PM

The enthusiasm and expectation were palpable during the Scaling Up 2017 bioeconomy conference held in Ottawa from November 27-29, 2017. Clearly, both participants and speakers felt that the time for a bioeconomy had finally arrived, and that whatever their involvement in a bioeconomy, the cash would soon start pouring through their doors. 

The introduction of the opening keynote speaker, federal Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr, by a band playing a rendition of the jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, reinforced the mood. One wag joked that at least the band did not play “Over the Rainbow.” Carr was clearly as enthusiastic about the coming bioeconomy as everyone in the room. He told the more than 200 attendees that “the world is talking about a transformation to a global bioeconomy and that Canada has every opportunity to lead.” He continued by outlining how Canada brings enormous advantages to the emerging bioeconomy and that Canada is determined to be at the forefront of its development. 

While much of Carr’s emphasis was on biofuels, he also said biomaterials, bioproducts, and bioenergy would play a critical role providing viable alternatives to fossil fuel-based products in improving air quality and creating jobs and more resilient communities. Carr also made clear that the federal government recognizes that Canada cannot meet its climate change objectives without a very significant transition towards a bioeconomy, and that Canada has every intention of meeting its Paris Agreement commitments. 

The very dense agenda, with 59 speakers over a day and a half, included sessions on renewable fuels, bioenergy, agriculture, innovative forest products, biochemicals and bioresins, and all related business needs such as capital finance and partnerships for commercialization of new products and technologies. Carr recognized that it is consumers who will lead the transition to a bioeconomy. 

A speaker from Innovation and Energy Technology of Natural Resources Canada explained that his department has adopted a very broad definition of the technologies and systems that make up a bioeconomy. Such a definition would maximize the number of companies and organizations that can participate in the bioeconomy transition. 

No specific funding announcements were made at the conference, but the government is expecting to announce at least one major funding program before the end of 2017. Although there is substantial money coming for bioeconomy initiatives, many speakers made clear that it is as much about ways of doing things and ways of using biobased raw materials as it is about receiving funding for research, development, and commercialization. 

Teamwork and partnerships were a particular focus, as Canadian entrepreneurs’ frequent reluctance to engage in partnerships was a barrier to overcome if success is to be achieved. Carr and several other speakers stressed the need to engage the public, Indigenous communities, and environmental groups much more than at present. 

Environmental groups in particular frequently have important ideas, although they can be a barrier to the adoption of new uses of forest biomass. One speaker implied that concern about the use of forest resources sustainably is misplaced, as Canada is using only one percent of its sustainable harvest. Agricultural interests offered data showing that concern that food and fuel would have to compete for resources was misplaced, and that a material bioeconomy presents no threat to Canadian food production. Explaining these concepts to a skeptical public and the environmental community presents a significant challenge. 

Despite the talk of government money to assist the transition to a bioeconomy, there was widespread agreement that it would be better if government supported innovation instead of interfering in the market. Boosting R&D and eliminating barriers to bioproducts is a more effective role for government than trying to pick winners from available new technologies, though it was clear that funding specific technologies identified as likely winners will be part of the federal government strategy. Several speakers commented that pursuing disruptive technology should be a key element of the strategy of individual businesses. 

There seems to be no reason to take anything away from the enthusiasm that Scaling Up 2017 participants are feeling but several key questions need to be addressed before too many government bioeconomy initiatives are announced. The fact that the federal government has adopted a very broad definition of what fits into a bioeconomy is worrisome. Just because something is made from biomass or makes use of biomass does not mean that it contributes to a bioeconomy. 

A bioeconomy cannot be about producing more stuff. A bioproduct or a bioenergy will only contribute to greenhouse gas targets or to any of the other environmental targets if it displaces, rather than adds to, material currently made from petroleum resources. A bioproduct that is manufactured using more petroleum energy than the equivalent petroleum-based product may be a net negative in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Robust tools such as life-cycle assessment are needed to evaluate whether a proposed technology makes a positive contribution to the environment and to improving the social condition of Canadians. To date, Canada has not been a leader in development of such tools, and they received almost no attention during the conference. In fact, one or two of the technologies presented appeared at first glance to be at risk of having a net negative environmental footprint. Whether governments have the ability to screen out such technologies before funding them will be key to credible government bioeconomy initiatives. 

The focus on technology start-ups as a source of biotechnologies is also somewhat concerning. Some of the best biotechnologies are likely to come from well-established industrial companies with a great deal of experience in research, development, commercialization, and marketing. It is easier for an established producer to make a transition to a biobased product than it is for a new competitor to enter an already crowded market. Government needs to focus on incentivizing the transition to a bioeconomy using advanced tools in which funding and regulation play only small parts. 

Canadas record to date in achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has been dismal. If Carrs enthusiasm is to be realized, the opportunity for progress will be emerging by this time in 2018. 

Preliminary information for the Scaling Up 2018 bioeconomy conference, to be held in Ottawa from November 5-7, 2018, is already available at www.scalingupconference.ca. Slide presentations from Scaling Up 2017 are promised to be on the same website shortly.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist who has been advising governments and the private sector on issues such as waste reduction, reuse, recycling, stewardship, environmental management, and social responsibility since 1980. He is currently working for the CIAL Group and can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone); (416) 362-5231 (fax); and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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