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The forest sector and the idea of circular bioeconomy

The forest sector and the idea of circular bioeconomy

Mankind is searching for routes towards sustainable, circular bioeconomy; gradually moving away from the prevailing fossil-based economy, which is much based on single use of fossil resources, namely deposits of coal, oil and natural gas. The idea of bioeconomy is that various human needs and desires are fulfilled by sustainable utilisation of renewable natural resources like forests, increasingly also in substitution for the exploitation of non-renewable fossil resources, such as oil, natural gas and coal.

Ecosystem goods and services

The concept of ecosystem goods and services addresses the strong connection between nature’s ecosystems and human welfare. The concept refers to such nature’s products and processes which contribute to human wellbeing. these include a wide range of goods like food (vegetables, meat, fish etc.), timber, water, etc. and services like photosynthesis, pollination, natural regulatory systems, bioremediation of pollutants and waste, soil formation etc. (Figure 1) Thus, the wellbeing of forest ecosystems and the value of ecosystem goods and services they provide, is the foundation for circular bioeconomy 1,2. Related to this concept, also biodiversity is increasingly valued based on its essential functional role in the production of ecosystem goods and services; so-called functional biodiversity, rather than simply on species richness as such 3.

Figure 1. Examples of ecosystem goods and services provided by forests 2.

The forest sector

For the forest sector, which includes forestry and forest-based industries, the advance of circular bioeconomy means growth and diversification. Sustainable increase of timber production, expanding industrial production of forest-based goods (e.g., sawn timber, paper and board, textile fibre and other materials; various chemicals and fuels) and also active development of novel forest-based bio-products and the corresponding manufacturing processes are needed, more and more.

However, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that being bio-based always means being sustainable. To manage the forest sector’s sustainable growth and diversification also in the long term and globally, proper management of its impact on ecosystem services is of great strategic importance. Well-developed management practices throughout the value chain are essential, from tree seedlings to timber harvesting; from mill operations to product recycling, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Many useful definitions for bioeconomy have been formulated as general guidelines for translating the ideas discussed above into practice. In the context of ForestBioFacts learning environment, it is relevant to understand circular bioeconomy as the production, utilisation and conservation of biological resources, including related knowledge, science, technology, and innovation, to provide information, products, processes and services across all economic sectors aiming toward a sustainable economy 4. Adding circularity in the definition refers to both the global carbon cycle and the avoidance of waste by clever re-use, recovery and recycling of products, materials and energy. Such circularity is a key element in the strategy of the modern, efficient forest sector, making it the forerunner of the necessary global transformation 5.

Figure 2. Conceptual presentation of forest-based circular bioeconomy, Source: Metsä Group.

Figure 2. Conceptual presentation of forest-based circular bioeconomy, Source: Metsä Group.

Forestry and forest-based industries have a long and successful history of bringing the idea of circular bioeconomy into practice by providing bio-based materials, chemicals and energy, as well as recreation to consumers. Recollecting used paper and board products and reusing them in production adds to the sector’s resource efficiency; more recycled paper than virgin wood pulp is used as the feed stock in the paper and board industry, globally.

Forest sector, together with agriculture and the food industry, are the two largest producers and utilisers of bio-based resources. The modern forest sector employs all branches of science and technology in its efficient industrial value chains; from satellite imaging and drones to forest biology, sophisticated harvesting machinery and soil management; from robust mechanical engineering and advanced process automation to nanotechnology, integrated process chemistry and applications of biochemistry.

Many of the technologies, which are developed and applied for industrial conversion of wood into value-added products, can also be adjusted and applied for doing the same from agricultural residues like various straws, so as to enable further expansion of circular bioeconomy.

The global demand for further expanding and diversifying the sustainable, circular forest sector is now stronger than ever before.

Listen to what Research Professor Tekla Tammelin from VTT thinks about the future opportunities and challenges of bio-based materials.

Forests and sustainable bioeconomy

According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO,) forests cover 27 % or c. 4 billion hectares of the ground surface of Earth and contain 430 billion m3 of standing stock of growing trees 6. A little more than 500 million hectares of production forest are managed in compliance with either PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) or FSC (Forest stewardship Council), the two most widely applied forest certification programs 7. These managed forests are developed, harvested and re-grown for the purpose of providing sustainable raw material supply for bio-based products over many generations of  trees – and people.

Well-managed production forests often also serve well for recreational purposes; e.g. in Finland, where forests cover 75 % of the country’s land area, 100 % of production forests are such multi-purpose forests 6, and about 90 % of forests are certified either by PEFC or FSC – or both. 9, 17.

After extensive, multi-disciplinary research work during several decades, scientists have established that human activities can, indeed, alter Earth’s atmosphere and climate in harmful ways, and are already doing so. While many details of the related complex global material and energy circulation are yet to be defined by scientists, there is good basis to attribute much of the observed and anticipated global warming and climate change to the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration. This rise is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, but also by deforestation, which is mostly due to the growing needs of agriculture10.

The sophisticated computer models, which are used to simulate the very complex apparatus of Earth’s climate and oceans are continuously developed to explain its behaviour in detail, and to foresee the expected pace and intensity of future changes. Nevertheless, it’s already clear that mankind must adjust its raw material and energy supplies and its consumption patterns, even considerably, to mitigate damages and risks related to climate change 11,12.  How high is the risk of the most dramatic visions to actually materialise is, and will always be, debatable. Nevertheless, launching well-planned, knowledge-based actions is certainly justified.

Trees and other plants are made mostly of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) through photosynthesis, driven by the energy of the sun’s radiation. About 50 % of the dry weight of wood is atmospheric carbon, corresponding to c. 1.8 tons of atmospheric CO2 bound per one dry ton of wood, or one ton of CO2 per one cubic meter of sawn timber 13. When plant biomass decomposes – either through natural decay, or, e.g., when combusted as fuel – carbon is again released back into atmosphere, mostly as CO2. Meanwhile, forests (including living plants and soil’s organic matter) and forest-based products form carbon storages.

Indeed, forests have two essential roles in sustainable bioeconomy; that of primary raw material sources for bio-based products, enabling mankind to reduce the usage of coal, oil and natural gas, and that of biological carbon storages and sinks. Using a certain forest resource for one of these purposes incurs an opportunity cost, or trade-off, which means that the same resource’s availability for the other purpose is limited to some extent. Nevertheless, e.g. in Finland and Scandinavia, well-managed, semi-natural production forests are considerable carbon sinks (i.e., growing carbon storages) while also increasing amounts of timber are harvested from them.

This is made possible by well-developed forest management practices, which are based on applying the concept of ecosystem goods and services to boreal forests of these countries. The same concept and locally adjusted forest management practices have been successfully applied also to tropical planted forests14. Plantations established by major forest industry companies on degraded grasslands is a good example of this 15. However, there is still very big potential for improved forest management, especially in tropical forests.

As the markets of forest-based products are global, there is also another important trade-off: Reducing timber harvesting in regions of well-developed forest management in order to build forests’ carbon storages induces more timber harvesting in unmanaged forest elsewhere, thus causing a negative net effect on carbon balance and ecosystems. Instead, curbing uncontrolled deforestation by employing good forest management enables policy makers and the forest sector to avoid such a harmful trade-off.

A key driver towards circular bioeconomy is the desire to reduce anthropogenic accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and to curtail its undesired consequences.

The forest sector provides many practical means for reducing the global economy’s dependence on fossil fuels and for bringing Earth’s carbon cycle back into balance.


Listen to when Dean Kristiina Kruus from Aalto University shares her thoughts on global challenges and how the forest industry and our engineers can solve them.


Further reading

  • Antikainen R. (2017). Renewal of forest based manufacturing towards a sustainable circular bioeconomy. Reports of the Finnish Environment Institute 13/2017.
  • Hetemäki et al. (ed.) (2017). Towards a sustainable European forest-based bioeconomy. European Forest Institute.
Authors and references
This page has been updated 21.01.2021