2 July 2021

The post-pandemic crisis does not scare the European bioeconomy

circular bioeconomy, waste recycling green economy

Here the 7th “Bioeconomy in Europe” report by Intesa San Paolo, Cluster Spring and Assobiotec. The total value in 2020 was close to 320 billion. The drop in turnover caused by the pandemic is less than the entire economic system. And it increases its weight in terms of production. Evidence of greater adaptability to crises

by Emanuele Isonio

It is worth 317 billion, has 2 million employees and during the months of crisis caused by the Covid emergency it recorded a less significant decline than the total economy. Proof of its resilience in the face of the pandemic challenge. The numbers emerge from the 7th Report “The bioeconomy in Europe” drawn up by the Studies and Research Department of Intesa San Paolo in collaboration with the Cluster Spring and Assobiotec-Federchimica.

In Italy, in particular, in 2020 the bioeconomy (i.e. the set of production activities that use biological resources, including waste, to produce goods and energy) overall lost 6.5% of the value of production. However, this is a smaller decline than the entire economy. In the same period, the latter in fact underwent a contraction of 8.8%. The weight of the bioeconomy in terms of production has therefore risen to 10.2% compared to 10% in 2019 and to 9.9% in 2018. A sign that has made even more evident the need to rethink the economic development model to put greater attention to sustainability and respect for the environment. Moreover, the particular resilience of the bioeconomy is not just an Italian prerogative.

Adaptability to the pandemic shock occurs across Europe

In all European countries, the value of the bioeconomy showed a less significant decline than the total economy: -4.3% for the United Kingdom, -3.1% for Germany, -3% for Spain, -2 , 3% for France and + 3.3% for Poland. “It showed greater adaptability to the pandemic shock, thanks to the essential nature of many of the activities of this metasector, with results that depend both on the severity of the pandemic and the related containment measures and on the different composition of the bioeconomy in the different countries” explains Laura Campanini, Head of Finance and Local Public Services of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Studies and Research Department.

The sectoral performances are, in fact, very diversified. Agri-food chain, which in Italy represents over 60% of the value of the bioeconomy, was less affected by the crisis generated by the pandemic (despite the closure of downstream catering). The same goes for utilities (energy, water, waste) and the paper supply chain (thanks to the support of products for healthcare uses and packaging, given the boom in online commerce). The fashion system, which plays a particularly important role for Italy, is instead the sector that records the most marked decline, due to the closure of the distribution phase, the block in the arrivals of foreign tourists and the changes in the purchasing preferences of consumers.

Bioeconomy in the Italian regions

The Report proposes, for the first time, the estimate of the value of the bioeconomy, in terms of added value and employment, in the Italian regions. The estimates, made in collaboration with SRM-Studi e Ricerche per il Mezzogiorno, highlight a particular role of the bioeconomy in the regions of the North-East and the South, where it has a weight on the regional added value of 8.2% and 6, respectively. 7% (year 2018). The weight in the North-West (5.3%) and in the Center (5.7%) is below the Italian average (6.4%).

In the top places for added value compared to the regional economy we find Basilicata and Trentino-Alto Adige, with an incidence of 9.3%. Followed by Tuscany, Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, with a weight between 8% and 8.7%. Below the national average, on the other hand, Lombardy (5.4%), Piedmont, Campania and Sicily.

At the regional level, however, interesting territorial specializations emerge: “in the North-West, for example, the sectors with the highest technological content stand out, such as pharmaceuticals and bio-based chemistry” reveals Serena Fumagalli, economist of the Studies and Research Department of Intesa St. Paul. “In the North-East regions the importance of the wood and furniture chain also emerges, while in the Center the weight of the paper and pharmaceutical sector stands out above all. Finally, in the South the agri-food chain represents almost the entire bioeconomy. However, there is no lack of experience in sectors with a higher technological content, as confirmed by the specialization of some provinces in the pharmaceutical sector”.

The development of bio-based chemistry

The specificities of the productive fabric of the various Italian regions are also reflected in the interest in the new frontiers of bio-based chemistry. That is, that part of chemistry that uses renewable biological raw materials instead of fossils. The analysis highlights a dynamic and complex system: more than 830 subjects, from 84 universities and research centers (public and private) to about 730 companies (with more than 500 start-ups).

As for business, a rich and diverse world emerges. An important core of large companies is flanked by numerous small and medium-sized companies and a significant number of innovative start-ups. A proof of the dynamism and innovativeness of this field, also confirmed by the high number of subjects operating in the sector upstream of Research and Development.

“Many bio-based chemicals, in addition to the advantages in terms of emissions linked to the raw material (particularly important in the case of using by-products of other waste or waste processes), are also biodegradable and compostable at the end of their life cycle, in compliance with international standards ”explains Stefania Trenti, head of the Industry Office of the Studies and Research Department of Intesa Sanpaolo. “Bio-based chemistry thus contributes to significantly reduce the overall impact on the environment, also thanks to the possibility of redesigning the downstream products from an overall eco-design perspective, a fundamental element of the circular bioeconomy. In Italy it represents about 8% of the total of the chemical sector“.