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The Bio-Based Economy Needs a Re-Brand
9:12 AM MST | November 23, 2011 | By OLIVER CANN
The bio-based economy is at a critical juncture. Unfortunately for anyone that believes in its vast potential for setting the world on a sustainable, prosperous future, it is not clear which path it will take next.
It’s October 28. We’re in Amsterdam, at the European Forum for Industrial Biotech, Europe’s leading conference for industrial biotech. The mood is upbeat: numbers are up and there is a frisson in the conference hall and break-out areas. The meeting ‘pods’ are all in use.
And there’s much to talk about. Second generation biofuels, for long a laboratory curiosity, are on the verge of commercialization. Bio-based chemical production is scaling up. Big corporates – from soft drinks to car makers - are getting behind bio-based materials. Critical mass seems within reach, technology is rattling along, yet all is not well.
The problem is communication. Proponents are convinced the BBE is A Good Thing; that their technology will help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, fend off climate change and help the world become a better place but the world at large doesn’t see it this way. The media too often relates the bio-based economy to high food prices and questionable land use change and energy firms are dropping biofuels from their marketing: little wonder, then, that governments are having second thoughts about how much support they extend to the sector.
To be fair, none of this is lost on the industry and kudos to Europabio, EFIB’s organiser, for placing the issue of communication high on the agenda. Rein Willems, a former president of Shell Nederland, used his keynote to warn that NGO opposition was slowing the bio-based economy’s progress, while leading lights such as DSM and Novozymes all called for transparency, social inclusion and better communications.
Can the bio-based economy become A Good Thing once more? Undoubtedly yes. Technology and international agreements will help, but it’s a communications failure that got the industry where it is today and it’s communications that will, largely, get it out again.
Let’s look at what hasn’t worked so far. The industry’s biggest failure has been in exciting, inspiring, educating and explaining to the world. Coming up with a viable way of weaning ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels should have been an open goal; somehow it became an own goal.
Another strategic mistake was to underestimate the strength of opposition from vested interests. Whenever there are winners, there are losers and when they comprise whole industries, cities, communities, there’s always going to be a fight back.
All of which requires a concerted response. In communications, we talk about platforms a lot but this is what the bio-based economy needs; to consolidate support, convey relevance and inspire hope. There are plenty of potential supporters out there who just don’t yet realise it: farmers that can make a second income, rural development agencies that can secure new investment and infrastructure, environmental organisations that want to see CO2 emissions cut, members of the public that want an alternative to constantly rising fuel prices.
This may require some fresh thinking. If the bio-based economy doesn’t work as a moniker for the new green industrial revolution, then let’s get a new name. If the word biofuel has become toxic then let’s call second generation fuels something else.
It definitely means digging in for the long haul. The bio-based economy is still a young idea with a lot of promise and nothing to hide. It needs a champion to campaign on its behalf, to sharpen its arguments, to raise its profile by making it more relevant, passionate and exciting to the world at large. The idea will never win everyone over, least of all the fossil fuel industry - and those who cannot be convinced needs to be engaged, and defeated in open debate. If the industry can achieve this, the path to realising the massive potential of the bio-based economy will be open.
by Oliver Cann, Aspect Consulting