Focus on: biorefineries


The Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) has recently organised an online event to discuss the present situation and the perspectives of Innovative bio-based products for a sustainable future, introducing a study about the involvement and role of pulp and paper industries in the sector

CEPI, the Confederation of European Paper Industries, was the first to launch its 2050 Roadmap back in 2011 in order to answer the call for a decarbonised Europe; and almost two years ago, in 2019, European pulp and paper CEOs declared their intention to support the strategy for a carbon neutral society within the next three decades. Furthermore, last year CEPI began to promote its 2030 Industry Manifesto, whose aim is that to respond to the tightening climate change policy across the whole European Union and the mandate for a greener, more resilient economy. The target, today, is also to react to and recover from the crisis that the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered. A significant part of the Confederation’s activities was recently devoted to analyse the achievements of the biorefinery sector and the benefits it could actually generate. Thus, CEPI produced and introduced during a recent online event a study to register the wood-based biorefineries in Europe and to quantify the relevant investments, turnover and the overall number of jobs they have already created or are presumed to create. A further goal was that to identify the precise value of emerging bio-based products and, finally, to demonstrate the essential role of bioeconomy in the European Green Deal framework. NC Partnering Partner and CEO Jukka Kantola was in charge to explain participants both the methodology and the results of this research.

The method, the numbers

Underlining that the study was based on a web-survey that involved a number of European companies and biorefinery facilities and, on the other hand, on information collected on the Internet, in first place Kantola began by explaining what we really mean with the term biorefinery. And this indicates an overall concept of a processing plant where, as he recalled, forest-based feedstock is converted and extracted into a spectrum of added-value manufacts. Bio-based products are classified as materials, chemicals, fuels, food/feed, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics for commercial or internal use, as from CEPI 2017 definitions. In all cases, the feedstocks are of forest origin and biorefineries in the survey are related to CEPI members’ interest. Transformation activities are classified in three categories: based on chemical pulping (CAT1); on paper making (CAT2) or on other processes (CAT3). Traditional products from pulp and paper mills such as all chemical pulps, board and paper grades were all excluded from the study. According to researchers, 139 biorefineries are already active in Europe and 84% are related to CAT1; whereas 28% are in a planning phase. Only greenfield investments were taken into account, from this point of view, but it deserves to be noticed that many existing sites are also undergoing projects of portfolio expansion and redirection. As for commercial production, the most important resulting bioproducts are man-made fibres, tall oil products, biodiesel and naphtha. Several are the production sites across the continent – although such countries as Sweden, Finland, Germany, France and Austria host the highest number of facilities – and their overall value amounts to 2 billion euros approximately.

8,000 employees. Mission: possible

Again, biodiesel and naphtha, biochemicals and lignin oil will represent the most important business for the forthcoming plants, whose value is predicted to be slightly lesser and will amount, according to estimates, to about 1.75 billion euros. Nonetheless, 16% of the planned biorefineries are new types of biorefineries – other than chemical pulping-based or paper production-based – and this percentage is growing substantially. In his speech, Jukka Kantola reported that the overall value of the emerging bio-based products is today around 2,65 billion euros, which correspond to approximately 3% of the value that the entire forest industry has in Europe. Last year, estimates would calculate that their added value was as high as 800 million euros, with 5,600 total employees. But expectations are much greater. NC Partnering and the Confederation of European Paper Industries predicted that, should all planned investments be completed, by 2030, the annual turnover could rocket to 5 billion euros per year and the number of employees could reach the peak of 8,000 units. According to forecasts, as Jukka Kantola added, a substantial part of upcoming investments will be related both to biorefineries and new, innovative bio-based products. The industry is currently heading towards material applications, rather than fuels, for example, although some obvious differences between one country and another, in the European Union, are still there. Bernard Lombard, Trade and Industrial Policy Director at CEPI, pointed out that if on the one hand, as previously observed, the current value of new bio-based products represents already almost 3% of the total industry value, this percentage is growing rapidly, so to become a major contributor to the sectors’ 2050 target of 50% more added value.

Conversion underway

Currently, as Lombard said, the largest share of bio-based products is related to materials. Out of materials, man-made fibres are among the largest in the sector. The global textile market is over 100 million tons with just 6% being based on man-made cellulosic fibres. It is expected that man-made cellulosic fibres’ share will increase during the vision 2050 time period. In order to realize this, more and more traditional kraft mills will be converted to produce dissolving pulp. The pulp and paper industry has the ambition to become the European hub for the bio-based economy, integrating wood fibre, bio-based products and novel recycling. This is why players in the industry need a shared vision in order to build, in Lombard’s words, a vibrant, low-carbon circular bioeconomy and accelerate industry transformation. The EU Green Deal and the 2050 climate neutrality target requires an ambitious shift and the EU regulation can play an important role in transforming the industry, although it must be aligned to allow the most appropriate conditions for investing. A new Forest Strategy, able to cover the entire forest and forest-based sector is needed, with the aim to strengthen it and ensure that its importance is and will considered crucial now as in years to come.

Towards a sustainable future

The paper industry’s path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% while creating 50% more added value was first outlined by CEPI in 2011 in its 2050 Roadmap to a low-carbon bioeconomy. Since then, CEPI has persistently explored ways for the industry to reduce its emissions and add value to its materials, products and processes. Significant progress has been made over the past five years on research and innovation as well as on investments. The industry, as the Confederation recalled, has already reduced its total (direct and indirect) greenhouse gas emissions by 44% per tonne of product since 1990. In 2016 CEPI, together with a team of experts, reviewed this progress as well as policy and technology developments. Therefore, the new Roadmap explores the investment paths that the industry would have to follow in order to realise its vision. In November, 2016, the initial findings of this review were opened to consultation from the industry.

Bioeconomy, according to CEPI

  • EU forests are estimated to absorb the equivalent of nearly 10% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions each year. Between 2005 and 2015, European forests grew by 44,000 km²;
  • Sustainable forest management practices are mainstreamed in industry and will enhance European forests carbon sink capacity;
  • The pulp sector can today extract full value from wood components and side streams. Zero waste processes are now common practice in the forest fibre and paper industry;
  • Paper recycling in Europe reached a record level of 71.5% in 2015, keeping fibres in the loop and extending the benefits of their renewable origin;
  • After several loops, the paper and renewable cycles are ultimately maintained with new forest fibres brought into the value chain.

(Sources: European Commission, FAO, CEPI).