Forested rural areas are a valuable source of non-fossil raw materials

Forested rural areas can be a driver of the European sustainable bioeconomy model if their valuable non-fossil raw materials can be used effectively.

Photo: David Mark / Pixabay
Photo: David Mark / Pixabay

In the circular sustainable bioeconomy perspective, forested rural areas represent a precious source of the lignocellulose and non-fossil raw materials for established or newly emerging market applications. Within the European Green Deal we need to debate and share visions on how to tap the potential of forested rural areas as a driver of the European sustainable bio-economy.

We are at the dawn of a new techno-economic system. Nowadays, the main challenge is to carry out sustainable innovation processes in order to re-convert the production of manufacturing industries to be competitive while respecting the target of climate neutrality.

The incumbent climate crisis and dramatic impact of the pandemic, along with the extraordinary progress of green, environmental and white biotechnologies and digital communication, potentially pave the way to disruptive innovation for the sustainable growth dynamics of territories. The same concept of “rural” (being remote and under demographic decline) and “urbanization” (driver of innovation and progress) is going to change.

Proper policies, duly redesigned according to a systemic approach, could allow rural communities to start an extraordinary journey into a more sustainable and innovative future.

Cities face the risk of increased impact due to climate change, pollution and conflicts among societal groups. Conversely, rural areas, less densely populated and rich in cultural and natural heritage, could become highly attractive alternatives. These rural areas could provide healthier environments offering a more affordable lifestyle to (young) people looking for job opportunities.  Advanced manufacturing and service businesses, operating in the international markets, might thrive in these areas, given that suitable technological infrastructures are put in place.

Properly infrastructured rural areas, respecting the potential of natural ecosystems, could become highly attractive. The same concept of remoteness can change, as working remotely for a part of current duties of employees working in cities and offices is becoming more and more frequent. Also, electricity powered transport (such as short distance electric aircraft and drone technology) may provide new approaches to the transformation of peripheral conditions that ensure climate change neutrality. Moreover, the most recent advancement in biorefinery technologies and digital technologies (IoT, IA, …) must be duly studied to identify the most appropriate applications that enable the decoupling of growth from the consumption of natural resources.

Present evolution in biocatalytic small-sized modular multipurpose biorefineries offer an attractive combination:

  • Robust research-driven cluster start-up connected to the biorefinery of lignocellulosic feedstocks and industrial valorisation of their outputs (natural primitive fibres, regenerated cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose and other biochemicals)
  • High quality of life and vibrant creative industries such as tourism and hospitality, visual and media industry.

Currently, forests in EU provide 3.5 million jobs (many more than the three heaviest and most energy-wasting industrial chains – steel, chemicals, cement). The sector includes 400,000 small and medium-sized enterprises and 16 million forest owners. Rural, Mountainous and remote areas constitute 80% of the EU territory. 

These territories can provide sustainable leverage for the Green Deal, not merely because Europe must ensure cohesion, but because they are the major source of bio-based raw materials for a European autonomous capacity to inspire the bio-based industry of tomorrow. Forested rural areas must become the champions of the Green Deal Agenda and Next Generation EU if the Green Deal is to become a reality and not just a promise.

Forest policies as a vital component of the EU Green Deal

No doubt the EU Green Deal is the most courageous and  transformative European political initiative in recent decades. However, such great vision and ambition cannot be delivered without rethinking the way we produce and consume, including how we conceive territorial planning. Circularity applied to a fossil-based economy is not the way forward. We must jump into the sustainable bioeconomy era, which is usually circular from inception.

A starting point for incisive and transformative new policies must be the revision of data provision and accessibility.

Attention should be given to build accessible, integrated, multilevel databases, like the ones of Eurostat and FAO, that combine quantitative and qualitative data and ensure a detailed understanding of the very diverse typologies of rural territories with a new perspective. Data must be complete, updated and specific. For instance, they must include the extension of private and state-owned forests, the percentage of forests classified as protected zones and by different typologies, climate zones and plant species (including woody and non-woody species). We should design rigorous indicators to rate environmental, cultural and socio-economic values.  It is also necessary to estimate the potential of plant waste that could be harvested to maintain the landscape and prevent fires and hydrogeological disaster.

Policies aimed to build a circular bio-economy model must optimize the sustainable exploitation of European lignocellulose biomasses while enabling a viable upgrading of the social and economic livelihood in rural territories.

In the post-covid era, coexistence of ecological innovative industries with lifestyles that reinforce cultural values and traditions could become reality in precious and often unique rural ecosystems.

Culture and heritage protection and valorisation are the connecting values of the European communities and we must take into consideration how to bind together the need for transformation with historically resilient and sustainable settlement models. In the past the relationship between natural and anthropic landscapes with built environments has resulted in rural settlements that reinforced the sense of societal identity and fostered social cohesion. At the same time, the local building culture was naturally sustainable, since it utilized local natural resources and materials.

If disruptive changes are introduced early in the policymaking, the past will meet the future and generate potent alternative means of development in contrast to the consumeristic approach of present society.

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Lilia Infelise
Founder and Director of ARTES ( Lilia Infelise is an economist, specialising in innovation policies with a special focus on sustainable management of materials and community ecotourism. Creator of GINEXTRA®, a small-scale multipurpose modular and integrated biorefinery technology and the Alliance Model.