The Recarbonisation Revolution

ENVIRONMENT, 15 Aug 2016

Dr. Petri Vasara – The Economist

The World Needs a ‘Recarbonisation Revolution’ of Global Material Flows

It 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 recarbonisation revolution offers a simple way to define the bio-economy: recarbonise materials, de-carbonise energy.

With reference to the profound concern over climate change, the terms ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘low carbon economy’ have become so popular that a key truth is often  forgotten – that carbon is the basis of life. It is only in energy that we need to get away from fossil-based carbon as a fuel. In materials, carbon is needed in the form of biomass to create a truly renewable and sustainable loop.

A small change makes a big difference

Imagine a solution where we recarbonise just 1% of the market of some key global material flows. The packaging market in 2013 was worth 590bn euros alone. Plastics and fibre are about even, with 220 and 215bn euros in turnover respectively. Moving 1% of the packaging market from fossil plastics to bio-packaging would equate to 6bn euros in turnover. Plastics correspond to about 300 million tons. Moving 1% from fossil plastics to bioplastics would represent about 3.5 billion euros of new bio-business.

Now 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 30bn euro of annual new bio-business. In all, these three 1% substitutions would provide an estimated 40bn euro 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.

Aligning of the stars

New developments in technology and materials sciences have made this revolution both possible and desirable. Four material platforms stand out as examples of the possibilities we can achieve with recarbonisation: lignin, sugar, nanocellulose and graphene. The first three are carbon-based and graphene is pure carbon. Together they have the potential to radically change the materials world.

Global brands such as IKEA, Lego, Toyota, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Heinz, and Ford have their own reasons for pushing biomaterials. Sometimes it is a functional or cost-related decision – biocomponents in cars weigh and cost less than metal, for example. Sometimes it is a question of brand image. This is a new and unexplored area, thus alliances across sectors are not yet the norm- a transformation of the value chain must and is taking place.

No revolution is easy, and the ‘recarbonisation revolution’ is no exception but there is room for many winners.

So is recarbonisation just too good to be true? Hype will always exist around any new remedy. The figures provided here are just indications of potential outcomes. Likewise, biobased solutions are in many cases still far from competitive with fossil-based solutions. However, there are very strong foundations for recarbonisation. As we have shown the business is already underway in some sectors and is being further encouraged by brands.


Dr. Vasara has 25 years of experience in management consulting. During his career, his task has been to constantly evolve new business areas for Pöyry Management Consulting, including bioenergy, biochemicals, biofuels, new technologies, environmental strategies and industrial policy, trend foresight and consumer insight. Currently he is Head of Pöyry’s Biofutures global consulting practice.

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