Bioeconomy (re-)visited

25.9.2014 at 11:06

Jani Lukkarinen

The town of Nurmes in Eastern Finland has chosen bioeconomy as one of their core development areas. They are not alone, as the environmentally sustainable, renewable innovations have been elevated as a catalyst for a new era of global economic growth. However, the case of Nurmes is interesting because a single factory project – a proposal of slow pyrolysis biorefinery producing biocoal – has pushed the snowball rolling.

The idea of a biocoal factory was introduced in year 2012. There was a lot of discussion around fast pyrolysis and bio-liquids in Finland, while the slow pyrolysis technology was a relatively unknown. The technology had been developed through method of trial-and-error at Biosampo laboratory built in Kouvola school of applied sciences. The choice of Nurmes as a location for the large-scale factory was a result of some peculiar geographical links.

The main reason was excess of industrial wood because of closed forest industry factories in the region. The process utilizes same wood that has traditionally been directed to pulp-and-paper industry, so the wood markets are an important connection. Almost as important was the availability of railroad network, as the output would be two-thirds in biocoal and one-third in bio-oil. The products would be further refined closer to markets to meet the demands of medical, chemical or energy industry.

However, the factory project and the bioeconomy ambitions of the town have stagnated, which can be seen from several angles:

  1. On national level, bioeconomy has been seen as a quick-fix concept in regional development. Many of the development projects have been directed to struggling industrial towns like Varkaus, while Nurmes doesn’t fit the mold.
  2. Factory would be in direct competition with traditional forest industry. Since the World War 2 the role of industrial forestry has been a sort of a taboo as the resource base and prices have been secured by national policies. Now this may be changing, but it is hard to find economic support for radically different solutions.
  3. The scale of the factory is rather regional than national. In public there is a demand for a pulp-mill size biorefineries or biodiesel factories that generate hundreds of workplaces, while the biocoal factory stays on smaller numbers.

This boils down to general definitions of bioeconomy. In Finland, the discussion is concentrated around economic innovations, while the potential of social change is overlooked. Furthermore, the actual, local practices of bioeconomy have been under-conceptualized, while the focus is on mega-projects. In the case Nurmes, social changes would be rather cosmic, as it would rather mean reconsidering of practices and institutions of regional development and forest industry. However, the general argument is that bio- is usually an easy attachment to existing economic actions.

The buzzword of bioeconomy may be already running out of steam as the economic downswing becomes permanent and the condition of environment worsens year after year. And this has a lot do with misconception, when the wider social changes are seen an outcome of innovations-as-usual and not the other way round.



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Jani Lukkarinen

Jani Lukkarinen


Jani is writing his PhD on different uses of knowledge in emerging bioenergy governance. His special interest is in the interpretations, translations and contestations of scientific, economic, environmental and political knowledges.

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