A national bioeconomy strategy for Austria

Within the record time of nine months, the Austrian government, together with experts of the Austrian Bioeconomy plattform and the sustainability think tank Denkstatt, has worked out a national bioeconomy strategy. European Biotechnology spoke with Josef Plank, Secretary General at the leading Federal Ministry of Sustainability about the focus and ambition of the national initiative.

EuroBiotech_ Within the last two decades, Austria has built up a vibrant bio­pharma and med-tech industry from scratch – what are Austria’s plans for the bioeconomy?
Plank_ In March, we presented a national bioeconomy strategy led by the Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism, which has been worked out with the relevant stakeholders and Austria’s Ministries for Research and for Infrastructure. The strategy defines Austria’s ambition in the emerging field of bioeconomy. We will now start negotiations with industry stakeholders to define how to achieve our goals to establish an integrated bioeconomy and publish an bioeconomy action plan this year.

EuroBiotech_ What are the primary goals of your strategy?
Plank_ Perhaps our most important goal is decarbonisation and innovation. The bioeconomy is an economically important part of the Austrian Climate and Energy Strategy that aims to significantly reduce CO2 emissions by 2030, in line with the Paris goals. We want to generate a burst of growth based on bio-based products and services. That will require a cross-disciplinary collaboration amongst the players in agriculture and forestry, waste management, manufacturing industries and trade – in brief: within the entire value chain. We are convinced that the bioeconomy provides a highly innovative economy model for the future, one in which Austria is already well-positioned to generate future jobs and growth without overexploitation of our planet’s natural heritage. We already have a competitive edge in wood processing and the pulp and paper industry. So, we don’t start from zero. According to figures from the Austrian Energy Agency and Denkstatt, a sustainability think tank that helped with working out the Austrian bio­economy strategy, bioeconomy-related products already contribute to 8% of the Austrian GDP. Another goal in Austria’s bioeconomy strategy is to reduce our dependence on fossil resources along the value chain. We are committed to creating jobs and growth by switching industry manufacturing from fossil-based sources to truly green innovations. 

EuroBiotech_ Do you think that bioeconomy is simply about replacing fossil-based by bio-based processes?
Plank_ First, renewable resources must be produced sustainably; the goal mustn’t be to exploit natural resources. According to our statistics, we have 7.4 millions hectares of forestry area in Austria. However, if we wanted to completely replace fossil with bio-based resources, we would need 0.9 to 3.8 million hectares more. So, what’s a sustainable answer to the land use of renewable resources? We think that a significant part of resources must be provided through circular reuse of waste products or agricultural residues. If you look at our plastics strategy, you will see that we want to quit the produce-use-discard paradigm in favour of a circular economy. Otherwise, we will we will never reach a change in the economic system towards a bioeconomy. Regarding the need to integrate different industries into this circularity, its a clear advantage that the Federal Ministry of Sustainability covers all relevant sectors; from agriculture and waste management, to climate policy.

EuroBiotech_ What are the concrete steps that must be enacted now to make the strategy’s vision come true?
Plank_ The first step is to bundle and integrate activities in universities and industry to allow a rapid technology transfer. We expect this to have a huge impact on value creation. We will define detailed programmes, budgets, time frames, etc, in our 2019 bioeconomy action plan after all relevant sectors and stakeholders have provided their input. However, we will move step-by-step to remain flexible enough to react to the latest innovations. Concerning decarbonisation, our climate and energy, the plan is to reduce CO2 emissions in the non-energy sector by 14.2 million tonnes by 2030, compared to 2016, by means of the bio-based economy. In the mobility sector, we aim to reduce CO2 emissions by a further 7.2 million tonnes and, in the construction sector, by 3 million tonnes CO2. Funding will be complemented by policy support concerning product approval and consumer awareness and adoption of bio-based products. We will establish a monitoring system to recognize the positive but also negative impacts of our decisions concerning the bioeconomy.

EuroBiotech_ Speaking about policy support: bio-based products are still in their beginnings but must compete against cheap products from fossil resources that have been optimised over 50 years. What can be done to support the switch towards a bioeconomy under these conditions?
Plank_ Today, we have funding systems that favour the wrong products. That goes far beyond the bioeconomy, but we are working on it. Second, public procurement can significantly support adoption and awareness of sustainable bio-based products. We will built on the existing programme, klimaaktiv, and complement it with bioeconomic solutions. Third, we want to eliminate barriers in standardisation that block adoption of bio-based solutions but favour take up of products made from fossil resources. This will accelerate the market launch of many sustainable products. In addition, standards that promote sustainability will have an impact, both in R&D and in education. Furthermore, together with stakeholders from the various sectors, we will identify drivers and obstacles to the adoption of bio-based products in the pulp and paper, fibre, chemicals/polymers, insulants, and possibly fuels industry when working on the action plan.

EuroBiotech_ Most recently, Denmark announced plans to launch a traffic-light, food labelling system for sustainability. What public awareness measures will we see under Austria’s bioeconomy strategy?
Plank_ Our experience is that awareness is raised when such a campaign is focussed on a concrete product. We are currently in discussions regarding compostable bioplastics as packaging materials or the pro and cons of biogas for energy generation. Most importantly: all stakeholders of a certain value chain must take part; otherwise, it won’t work.

EuroBiotech_ How do you match the thorough analysis that is required for creating the action plan with the time pressure you have to fulfil international obligations, i.e. the Paris goals?
Plank_ The time schedule for achieving the Paris goals is indeed extremely demanding. Ideally, it would be complemented by EU-wide policy support measures that would make emissions more expensive. The reality is different. In Austria, we are trying hard to have 100% renewable energy by 2030, but of course, we have to find a consensus with the Federal states’s representatives, i.e. when it comes to CO2 reductions for heat production. However, most important is Austria’s aknowledgement that we need a fundamental transformation of the way that we produce, consume, and waste. We are optimistic that we can deliver that message to all Austrians.

Josef Plank, GE,
Josef Plank (60) became Secretary General of Austria’s Federal Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism in January 2018. Plank has different expertises that make him an ideal candidate to integrate the very different sectors of the bioeconomy. From 2000 to 2009, he was the environmental councillor in Lower Austria. Most recently, Plank was the General Secretary of the Austrian Chamber of Agriculture, responsible for around 110,000 farms. As former Chairman of the Biomass Association, Plank is also an expert in renewable energies and strategic energy planning.

First published in European Biotechnology Magazin, Spring 2019 Edition