Ten minutes with Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking’s Philippe Mengal

Negotiators from nearly 200 countries are meeting this week in Bonn, Germany, in the biggest climate change talks of the year. Some say the sustainability agenda is moving forward, but not fast enough.  However, there is an organisation in Europe whose overall objective is to accelerate the conversion of fossil-based European industries to low-carbon, resource-efficient, sustainable ones. Here, Liz Gyekye catches up with Philippe Mengal, Executive Director of the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking.

Tell me a bit about this sector and the role of BBI JU?

Driven by industry and consumer demand for greener products and a more sustainable growth, the bio-based industries create new products and materials out of biomass or organic “waste”.

With the EU’s 28 member states, latest figures available show that the bio-based industry provides 3.3 million jobs and has a turnover of around €670 billion. It’s about using biomass from the land, sea and agriculture and transforming it in biorefineries to produce plenty of products, including liquid fuels and gases. It’s a diversified sector.

It’s also about producing products that provide an alternative to fossil-fuel based products, such as bioplastics and biolubricants.

In Europe, this sector shows double digit growth and this is around 11%. The sector is developing in the EU.

The European Commission (EC) addressed [MP(B)1] a question in 2012, which was “what kind of bio-based industry do we want for Europe?” The answer was a sustainable bio-based industry, where we will organise the value chain in a sustainable way with clear added values for the consumer and the citizen. 

In 2012, the EC developed a bioeconomy strategy for Europe. The main action plan for this strategy was the creation of a new agency called Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU). It’s a joint venture between the public and private sector. It’s a model of private and public partnerships. The public partner is the European Union, represented by the European Commission and the private partner is the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC), set up specifically to provide the private partner and which is a consortium of industries active in the bio-based sector.

This joint undertaking has a big budget. We have a total of €3.7 billion to invest in research and innovation for bio-based industries, and to act as a catalyser to develop this industry in Europe.  Roughly €1 billion comes from the EC and €2.7 billion is a financial commitment from the industry, which means that we have a huge leverage effect. This is because minimum €2.7 billion of private investment is expected.

Operating under Horizon 2020 (the current framework programme of the European Commission), BBI JU is driven by the Vision and Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda developed by the industry.

One of the main ambitions of BBI JU is to change the situation where Europe was focusing on science and technology and shift its focus on industrial investment.  A big ambition of BBI JU is to make sure Europe is an attractive place to invest in for bio-based industries.

What is BBI JU’s plan for 2020?

One of our ambitions is to align the strategy of policymakers and the strategy of industry. This is achieved by the development and implementation of the strategic innovation and research agenda, developed by the industry and endorsed by the EC. The role of BBI JU is to fund R&D projects for more advanced levels of technology readiness which are closer to market. This ranges from the development of the technology in the lab to full-scale deployment in biorefineries on a commercial scale.

One of the objectives was to have by 2020 a minimum of five biorefineries, all first – of their-kind in Europe operating at commercial scale and supported by funding from the  BBI JU programme. So far, in 2017, we already have six. This shows that in the middle of the initiative we are doing better than expected.  In terms of the investment from the industry, in 2014, a survey of industry members conducted by the private founding partner, BIC, showed that the bio-based industry was expected to invest €2 billion in the coming years. In 2017, a similar survey showed that €5 billion will be invested in Europe. This shows that Europe is becoming an attractive area to invest in.

We think BBI JU played an important role here, in terms of being able to organise and structure the value-chain, but also help to de-risk investment in biorefineries and speed up the investment.

We are now looking at companies who are interested in joining the initiative. We already have brand owners and companies like IKEA, Danone, Coca-Cola, Lego and Unilever who have joined the initiative.  In addition to this, banks and venture capital firms have also joined the initiative.

Large chemical companies have also joined the initiative, for example, Akzo Nobel, BASF, DuPont, Cargill, Clairant, DSM and Evonik. Companies like Total have also joined. We can really see an ongoing shift here.

What’s driving this shift? Are consumers still concerned with green issues?

Not enough. That is a challenge for the coming years. In principle, consumers are interested in buying products that are alternatives to fossil fuels. There is still confusion over the meanings of the words ‘bio-based’, ‘biodegradable’ or ‘organic ‘materials. There is also concern over sustainability and the competition with using land for food and keeping biodiversity.

That’s why we are expecting strong communications towards the consumer. We hope brand owners and retailers will have a strong presence in not only developing the product, but developing the communication necessary to really shift consumer behaviour. And of course, policymakers also have an important role to play in helping to create a level playing field for the bio-based sector.

Is there enough feedstock available for the bio-based industry?

Yes,  but it needs to be organised. We also need to address the full potential of biomass available everywhere in Europe including waste and side streams. This is one of the key objectives for BBI JU to tackle. For example, in Europe, we have a strong sustainable forestry sector.  We are the only continent where forests are growing. Marine resources have a huge potential but still need to be fully structured and exploited. We need bio-based sectors which are organised with the right logistic chains and best practices employed, for example forest management and the right technologies.

In relation to fuels, nobody thinks that biomass will be the only single solution to move away from petrol. However, it is an important part of the mix. We need liquid fuels for planes and long-distance transport. Yet, the ambition is not the fully replace oil and gas for energy production purposes by biomass-based fuels.

At BBI JU, we have a specific approach which was decided to focus on research and innovation for second-generation biofuels. This means using better what we don’t use now and maximising the value form side streams and waste streams without competing with food and feed uses or land use.

What is the potential impact on decarbonisation and reducing GHG?

It is significant and relevant to today’s urgency around climate issues. We expect that 30% of oil-based products will be replaced by bio-based ones by 2030. This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%.

We predict that around 80% of the jobs produced by the bio-based industries will be located in rural areas. Why? This is because the models of biorefineries promoted by BBI JU are small-to-medium-sized biorefineries located where the feedstock is produced.

What’s your personal vision?

We want to shape this industry based on a sustainable model. The European Commission is investing in BBI JU to create the condition for a sustainable bio-based industry. The sector is currently very fragmented, but the activity and interest is certainly there. To have a sustainable industry in Europe we need to speed up the sustainable processes up to commercial scale here, so we attract investment in Europe, rather than have European companies developing their science and technology here and then going abroad to invest in, say, Latin America or North America. We now see this is changing and Europe is back on the map as an attractive place to invest in the bio-based industry.

Does Brexit impact on the initiative?

There are a lot of discussions about Brexit but it doesn’t change our activity for the present time because we operate under Horizon2020. The UK is a full member state and as such is fully included in the programme. Until Brexit becomes a reality, the situation will not change. Naturally, we are seeing a lot of concern from British companies over what will be the future and organisation and organisation of the value-chain and their businesses.

This story was written by Liz Gyekye, editor of Bioenergy Insight.

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