What next for our industry? A recarbonisation revolution

News | 30 May.2016

What next for our industry? A recarbonisation revolution

This article was written by Petri Vasara from Pöyry Management Consulting. Pöyry is one of our Partners. Read more about them here

Our industry faces exciting times ahead. The world needs a ‘recarbonisation revolution’ of global material flows as we must increase biomass and decrease non-renewable materials such as metals and minerals in the movement of global trade. Additionally, recarbonisation requires moving from fossil carbon to biocarbon. The re-carbonisation revolution offers a simple way to define the bioeconomy: re-carbonise materials, de-carbonise energy.


Society’s concern with climate change has shaped our language to always refer to “decarbonisation” policies and attempts to create a “low carbon economy”. Whilst these sentiments are honourable in their intention, they neglect a key truth – that carbon is the basis of life. The only area where the removal of carbon should be focused is in fossil-based carbon fuels. Outside of fuel - in a vast range of other materials - carbon is needed in the form of biomass to create a truly renewable and sustainable loop.


What does a recarbonisation revolution mean for our industry?

Imagine a solution where we recarbonise just 1% of the market of some key global material flows. The packaging market in 2013 was worth 590 billion euros alone with plastics and fibre producing 220 and 215 billion euros in turnover respectively. Therefore, if 1% of the packaging market which is currently created from fossil plastics was moved to biopackaging, it would equate to 6 billion euros in turnover.


Likewise, plastics correspond to about 300 million tons, meaning that moving 1% from fossil plastics to bioplastics would represent about 3.5 billion euros of new biobusiness. Finally, imagine that 1% of the global volume of fossil fuels is taken and substituted with biomass, and that biomass is processed further in the forest industry – this would mean a green recarbonisation of a part of the world’s materials flows. This could result in an estimated 30 billion euros of annual new biobusiness.


When combined these three 1% substitutions would provide an estimated 40 billion euros per annum to a new sustainable bioeconomy. The calculations above can be debated of course, but they are indicative of the potential size of the opportunity.


Why now?

Whereas in the past this level of change may have been implausible, new developments in technology and materials sciences have made it both possible and desirable. Four materials - Lignin, sugar, nanocellulose and graphene - stand out as examples of where recarbonisation can be truly effective. The first three are carbon-based and graphene is pure carbon meaning they have the potential to radically change the materials world.


As well as being technically possible, there is also a demand for these solutions from some of the world’s global brands such as IKEA, Toyota, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. All have their own reasons for pushing biomaterials, both for functional or cost-related reasons. For example, biocomponents in cars weigh and cost less than metal or companies view it as a way of building brand image.


No revolution is easy, and the ‘recarbonisation revolution’ is no exception, but there is scope for many winners. Whilst alliances across sectors are not yet the norm, a transformation of the value chain must and is taking place. Companies operating in our industry must think ahead and align to benefit from this transformational shift.


We are only at the beginning of the recarbonisation journey and in many applications plastic is still much more competitive. However, even achieving a mere one per cent of the market would be a business worth billions of euros; the foundations are solid for this to happen and companies and brands from different sectors are already seriously looking at a biobased future. This is a positive sign for us all as the recarbonisation journey gets underway.