A growing number of scientific publications have criticized the bioeconomy concept for being too vague on environmental issues.  Most of these studies found that although bioeconomy strives towards sustainable development , economic aspects are clearly dominant, whereas social and environmental considerations take a backseat. Our most recent contribution joins this debate and discusses the issue of environmental policy integration in different political bioeconomy discourses.

Sustainable development is repeatedly mentioned in different bioeconomy policy strategies, many of which claim that bioeconomy, with its many technical fixes to environmental and economic problems, is inherently sustainable. Yet scholars have questioned the nature of this sustainability, arguing that more needs to be done in order to reach such ambitious goals. The bioeconomy is not self evidently sustainable [1]. In fact some scholars have criticized the bioeconomy for using concepts of sustainability and sustainable development mainly as “selling points” in the policy debate [2].

The World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) understanding of sustainable development attributes “principled priority” to environmental objectives in the process of balancing economic, social and environmental concerns. Hence, including environmental concerns in decision-making processes, outputs and implementation of public policymaking becomes essential for achieving the goal of sustainability [3,4]. With other words, there can’t be sustainable development without strong considerations for the environment.

The Bioeconomy, still in its infancy, tries to steer sustainable development in the right direction

In our latest publication we tackled exactly this issue, and analysed whether and if environmental concerns are integrated in different bioeconomy policy discourses. For this, we analysed different EU and national bioeconomy strategies in Germany, Finland, France and the Netherlands. We used content and frame analysis to identify the most salient environmental frames presented in these documents. Particular attention was payed to the forest-based bioeconomy  and its approach to sustainability and environmental concerns.

Confirmative with previous studies, we found a weak and mainly rhetorical integration of environmental concerns in political bioeconomy discourses. Three major environmental frames stand out:

  1. Environment benefiting from economic growth– this is the classical modernisation discourse where technical fixes are thought to provide policy solutions for existing problems while at the same time benefiting or safeguarding the environment.
  2. Environment as a challenge– where environmental considerations are seen as major challenges for the bioeconomy rather than as goals in themselves. In the case of the forest sector, such challenges are seen as  imposing certain limitations on intensified biomass production.
  3. Environment as a standard– national strategies understand environmental considerations in a purely technocratic way, as a standard that would have to be respected both within national borders but also at EU and international levels and closely monitored (through e.g., certification).
Hence, environmental policy integration is not only weak but also mainly rhetorical, depicting the environment as a problem rather than a goal. Technological innovations are seen as the holly grail that can tackle these problems all while strengthening and growing the economy. For more than a decade now, starting with the Lisbon Process of economic renewal and the 2001 EU Sustainable Development Strategy, attention from environmental policy integration has slowly faded [4]. Recent ambitions of shifting towards a new, sustainable, bio-based economy seem to reveal yet again an ambiguous political relationship between environmental policy integration and sustainable development in the EU.
This blog is based on our article published in the International Forestry Review’s special issue on “Shifting global development discourses”, and can be downloaded HERE.
Make sure to check out other interesting contributions in this special issue HERE 
Relevant literature
[1] Pfau, S.F., Hagens, J.E., Dankbaar, B., Smits, A.J.M., 2014. Visions of sustainability in bioeconomy research. Sustainability 6, 1222–1249. doi:10.3390/su6031222
[2] Ramcilovic-suominen, S., Pülzl, H., 2017. Sustainable development e A “ selling point ” of the emerging EU bioeconomy policy framework ? J. Clean. Prod. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.157
[3] Lafferty, W., Hovden, E., 2003. Environmental policy integration: towards an analytical framework. Env. Polit. 12, 1–22. doi:10.1080/09644010412331308254
[4] Jordan, A., Lenschow, A. 2008, Innovation in Environmental Policy? Integrating the Environment for Sustainability. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham

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