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Half a million jobs, €78 billion per year: The socio-economic impact of the European Bio-based Industry

Greater than wind, more than the photovoltaic sector, the bio-based industry confirms its crucial leading role towards a European sustainable economy every year. Thanks to the rapid growth of more and more competitive thermo and biochemical conversion technologies able to process and upgrade low quality materials, the biomass-based sector currently shows an impressive diversification and flexibility in terms of production technologies and final market products.

Biomass does not need to demonstrate its potential benefits anymore. In 2012 bioenergy stands out as leader throughout the European renewable energy landscape, with an impact of 489,880 jobs created and an annual turnover of €48 billion. This is significantly more than wind (~304,000 jobs and €35 billion) and solar energy (300,000 jobs and €35 billion). These values include biogas, biofuels and solid biomass for energy production. It is important to underline that bioenergy also requires a large number of operational manpower. This aspect increases the quality of job opportunities related to the biomass sector.

The figures above relate to green energy and fuel production. However, it represents just a small part of the bio-based markets landscape. Bio-based material – like bioplastics and biochemicals – have been designated as a lead market by the European Commission. In 2008 the total estimated annual turnover related to purely bio-based materials was €21 billion. This has grown to around €32 billion now in 2014. The related impact on employment is estimated to be around 39,000 jobs.

With a total employment of 520,000 jobs (direct and indirect) and an annual turnover of about €78 billion, the bio-based industry is driving Europe towards the target of a real sustainable economy.

However, there is still much to do. In comparison with countries such as the USA, South America or China, the growth forecast for Europe does not show the same rate.

  • Biogas technology, which grew impressively in the last years is now slowing (about +1,2%) together with the incentives. Many AD plant with biogas upgrading to biomethane are growing, but no valuable incentives programmes are available in many EU countries.
  • The liquid biofuels market was stopped by the ILUC directive in 2012, new advanced biofuels are still not commercial and the global production growth is about 1-2%.
  • Solid biomass market is currently the leading sector. Europe is now reaching its peak in terms of consumption (85 billion TOE in 2012) and production (82 billion TOE) of solid biomass for energy production. However, the valorization of agricultural and forestry residues becomes now of crucial importance in order to increase the energy production without increasing the import of wood from abroad (i.e. Canada).
  • Global bioplastics production capacity is set to grow 400 % by 2017, from 1.4 to 6.2 million tons produced every year. Europe is estimated to grow less rapidly than the rest of the world, with an expected increase of only 32%.

To maintain and grow the momentum, it is now time for European Commission and National governments to push towards specific new measures which should improve and update the old directives. New specific campaigns for the improvement of biomass residues supply chain efficiency, incentives on advanced biofuels which could push them to the takeoff, sustainability-based incentives programmes for biobased products market support, should be provided. In summary, the European biobased industry strongly needs a 2030 Roadmap, as the 2020 is near and a further step could represent the definitive takeoff of the biobased industry in Europe.

(Socio-economic indicators – source: Eurobserver Edition 2013)

Words by Andrea Salimbeni
EUBIA, Belgium