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A Green Economy Based on Wood?

The global economic system could be arranged in a way that is more environmentally-friendly. A Europe-wide project is investigating whether making this transition would be accepted by society

Freiburg, Oct 27, 2020

Multi-story buildings, t-shirts, or nutritional supplements could all be made up entirely or partially from wood or wood-based materials. The natural product's suitability for diverse uses make it a popular raw material. But can wood replace the widespread fossil resource oil in the production chain long-term? Professor for Forest and Environmental Policy Daniela Kleinschmit says that also depends on society. A series of articles introducing a range of departments and research projects of the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources (UNR) is being published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the UNR's founding. The sixth article – "People" – addresses the question of where society stands on making the global economic system more environmentally-friendly.

Multi-use raw material: Multi-story buildings can be made entirely or partially of wood. Photo: Joaquin Corbalan/

The fossil raw material oil is one of the most important resources in the global economy. It is a source of energy, fuel, and a fundamental material in many types of plastics. This means entire economic sectors are by-and-large dependent on a finite, non-renewable resource, the extraction of which is frequently accompanied by negative environmental impacts. In order to shape a more environmentally-friendly global economy in accordance with sustainable development, the discipline known as bioeconomy investigates how and what renewable resources could replace oil as a raw material.

Wood is one alternative with many diverse uses. It is equally suitable a material or fuel, and is a component of medical products and textiles. Against this background, forestry has developed into an important driver of bioeconomy. Daniela Kleinschmit emphasizes, "It's not just technological factors alone that will decide the success of this structural change. Which alterations are possible also depends on societal acceptance of them. That's why it's necessary to examine the social and political science perspectives as well as the socio-economic effects of the transition process."

A Europe-wide survey

Daniela Kleinschmit is doing research under the auspices of the international project "PerForm – Perceiving the Forest-based Bioeconomy." By means of comparative studies she is investigating how forest-based bioeconomy is seen in Germany and other European countries. Together with counterparts from Sweden, Finland, Italy, France, Austria, Russia, and Slovakia, Kleinschmit is also analyzing the regional differences and their causes. Funded by the European Forest Institute, the project got underway in the spring of 2018. The University of Freiburg led the project until it ended in March 2020. In order to obtain conclusive answers, the team – among other things – compared political strategies to one another and asked a range of stakeholders from the participating countries about their awareness of the issue. Among those interviewed were forest owners, conservationists, forestry students, and foresters as well as consumers. "We carried out on-line surveys, telephone interviews, and spoke with furniture store chain customers," explains Kleinschmit.

Well-informed and clueless

Their assessment revealed large knowledge differences between the groups. Students were, as expected, well-informed about using wood in the economic system, as were many of those surveyed from Scandinavia. "That last aspect can be traced to the fact that the forestry industry in Finland, for example, is a key economic factor and that the government invests correspondingly in this sector. That's why the scientific research and instruction is much further along than it is here," says Kleinschmit. By contrast, the consumers in most countries are rather clueless, she adds. Bioeconomy is an unknown concept for most Germans as well. The researcher adds, "Instead, in this country, the impetus for development towards bioeconomy comes from political circles and from research and development, such as from the chemistry sector."

The team has already published interim results in several scientific publications and created four graphics that provide information on country-specific differences. To conclude the project, a special edition will be published at the end of 2020 in cooperation with the Swedish magazine "Ambio – A Journal of the Human Environment," with additional scientific articles planned as well.

Modern scientific communication

Beyond that, the topic is also finding resonance in teaching. In the summer semester the University of Freiburg held the first Massive Open Online Course on forest-based bioeconomy, which Kleinschmit's associate, Dr. Alex Giurca, played a key role in developing. The video-based online course explains in several episodes how the economic concept came into being, which approaches are being pursued in different countries, and what these mean for the bioeconomy sector. Interviews with experts and interactive discussions about the actual state of research were also part of the course.

Independently of the PerForm-Project, UNR researchers continue to come up with new interdisciplinary concepts in order to present cogently the multi-faceted topic of bioeconomy. One of these is a comic called "Die Abenteuer von Alex & Biomann" ("Adventures of Alex & Bioman") written by Giurca and Dr. Markus Herbener, an assistant from the Chair of Forest History.

A look at other countries

In the coming five to ten years, Daniela Kleinschmit would like to give her work an even greater international orientation and apply this to analyzing the establishment and opportunities to shape bioeconomic strategies of non-European countries. "To get a comprehensive picture, we also need to speak with additional stakeholders, such as forestry and environmental organizations. Bioeconomic strategies also need to be assessed across sectors," says the researcher, who also advises policymakers on this topic. What's important, says Kleinschmit, is that everyone involved learns from each other.

Kristin Schwarz

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Humans and Hedgehogs

Eddy-fying Research

Water shortages lead to heightened conflicts

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