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Mark Rushton interviewed Jukka Kantola, the Chairman of the Advisory Board, on what to expect from the future of bioeconomy and World BioEconomy Forum 2019.
The first World BioEconomy Forum kicked off in Ruka, North-East Finland in September last year and was an instant success. The location, in the middle of a pristine northern wilderness, helped delegates from at least 15 countries around the globe focus on the seriousness of the mission in hand; the critical efforts to alleviate climate change and slow down the drastic effects of global warming.
The World BioEconomy Forum was founded in 2018 by Jukka Kantola, CEO of NC Partnering and seasoned professional operating in bio-based industries. It was while performing a variety of roles in the bioeconomy that Kantola noticed the sector needed a reliable and solid platform to bring together all the various moving parts. The bioeconomy has various vital stakeholders, including governments, research bodies, recognized international experts – and very importantly – industries operating in the bio space.
Mark Rushton interviewed Jukka Kantola at his offices in Oulu, Finland.
Can you tell us about your experience of the bioeconomy in your career so far?
My basic background is in the forest industry, where I’ve been working in different positions in Europe and in Asia. The common thread running through my professional life is that I have always been engaged with new business developments and projects. Also, I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in Asia for a European company and vice versa - in Europe for an Asian company.
After getting back from Asia, I realised along with some of the colleagues I had been working with, that Finland seemed to be overlooking possible opportunities in regards to its forests and the industries that could be utilizing them. In fact, the sentiment at the time was very much to close down operations as opposed to grow them.
We saw things differently and decided to establish NC Partnering Ltd to facilitate the bioeconomy and take advantage of what Finland has to offer. We were very much engaged with the set ups and formation of Kemijärvi Boreal Bioref and later with KaiCell Fibers. These companies are good examples of new phenomena as it is totally new to have start-ups in the sector which is traditionally dominated by well-established companies. Both Boreal Bioref and KaiCell Fibers are based on local fiber and heart of the process chemical pulping.
Finland seems to be a nation at the forefront of the bioeconomy, as a Finn, can you explain why this is?
Finland has always had co-existence with nature and especially with forests. The forest industries are still among the major industries in the country and the entire cluster is very strong here with global players in various parts of the value chain. Not only is the industry sector strong but also well recognised institutes are providing high level education for bioeconomy students and working professionals alike.
Finns do have a strong heritage for nature. Among the most common activities for Finns is to get into their cottages in the middle of forests, this is especially true in July, when everybody heads to the forests and lakes for weeks at a time.
As there is so much forest here, and along with this deep interest in nature, it is obvious that Finland can and does provide ideas for all kinds of bio-applications. The forest sector is strong, and good, sustainable, forest management over many generations has ensured that there will always be enough feedstock for new projects.
What are your thoughts about the bioeconomy as it exists presently?
The bioeconomy is already strong when it comes to certain applications, for instance pulp and paper and food chains. So traditional product applications are doing pretty well.
The challenge is still with new applications – how to make them financially sound without subsidies and regulative measures. I understand the advantages of subsidies and regulation to speed up development, but in the long-term businesses cannot be based upon it, and it industries and businesses must be able to stand on their own two feet.
The bioeconomy is now fast-evolving and gaining much more interest from ordinary consumers. This is enhancing demand for renewable applications and this will in turn expedite the transition to renewables. Currently, our society is very much driven by petrochemicals, when it comes to energy, chemicals and materials. Some examples of this with every day articles include the fact that less than 2% of plastics are bio-based. Also, it’s the same with textiles, where almost 70% are based on non-renewable resources.
How are we going to speed up this development?
To overcome the dominance of non-renewable sources requires new thinking.
There is huge potential to supersede non-renewable resources with bio-based alternatives. The bioeconomy needs to create its own narrative. There cannot be a one-fit-all bioeconomy – instead there are various bioeconomies, which have to take into account regional strengths and circumstances.
I’m not in great favour of solutions which only aim to replace non-renewable feedstock by bio-based feedstock. Biomass raw material, for instance like wood, are totally different in comparison to oil and gas. If you just separate carbon-hydrogen chains from the wood, it will become too expensive as we have clearly seen. One needs to take into account the characteristics of the feedstock to get the best out of it. Holistic use of material is a must.
It is good to remember that when plastics were developed, wood-chemistry was more dominant. Plastic developers did not follow the rules of wood chemistry but acknowledged the properties of petrochemicals. Today, too often, there is a tendency just to replace fossil-based feedstock with bio-based ones by simply using the same processes. This is not how to make change happen. So let’s not follow, much better to make paradigm changes. This is a big challenge for the entire sector to gain a winning position.
In your opinion, what significance does the bioeconomy have in the fight against climate change?
The bioeconomy and especially the circular bioeconomy plays a really important role in the fight against climate change. By using biological and renewable assets, carbon is always part of natural circulation – either bound in the ground in plants, trees or products or as carbon dioxide in the air to be bound again with flora. This natural circulation does not increase carbon content in the air.
When using fossil assets, carbon is released into the into the air and thus increasing climate change.
How and why did you set up the World BioEconomy Forum?
The idea was launched in autumn 2017, when visiting Ruka with the Economic Committee of the Finnish parliament. It was during those days that we had a lot of discussions on what we could do to enhance the bioeconomy. We realised that we needed a forum for the circular bioeconomy, after all, there was at the global economic forum every year at Davos, why not something powerful for the bioeconomy at Ruka!
Our idea really took hold as Ruka provides the perfect exotic and insightful environment to exchange ideas on the circular bioeconomy. Right from the beginning we managed to attract well known people from the global bioeconomy onto the advisory board and with their help we have managed to attract other major stakeholders to join as well.
Among main deliverables of the forum is that Bioeconomy is one of the answers to address climate change. We are here now to help shape Bioeconomy moving forward to responsibly help reduce GHG emissions and better manage our forests.
Can you tell us about the first event in Ruka?
The first event went well beyond our expectations. For our inaugural 2018 event there were delegates from all over the world – all in all from four different continents and from 15 different countries. The dialogue in the panel discussions was enthusiastic and informative, and we even got delegates engaged in group workshops which resulted in a resounding commitment to further the concept of the bioeconomy via a manifest at the end of the event.
Even though there was heavy talk on important matters at the first Ruka event, we still managed to create a relaxing spirit and atmosphere, which is always helpful when you are dealing with innovative thinking.
We are now happy to see that so many first comers will be coming to Ruka again this year!
What lessons have been learned from the first event?
We realised that it is very important to communicate bio-based value chains explicitly for the consumer. Among one of the best panels we had last year was about bio-based textiles, where companies from forests as well as from leading brands explained how wood is turned into fashionable textiles.
We decided that we need to have more showcases such as these, and this year we will describe how wood is converted into all sorts of different materials, for instance bio-based plastics, textiles and biofuels.
What can we expect from the next event, also to be held in Ruka in September this year?
We expect an even more international event with very high-level panellists. The location at Ruka provides an exotic platform to exchange ideas on circular bioeconomy with a uniquely relaxing atmosphere.
It is very important to have an insightful spirit, because that is the best way to deliver results.