If The North East Was Granted Two Wishes By The Good Fairy
If the North East was granted one wish by the Good Fairy then `more and better jobs´ would be the region´s top choice. This wish lies at the heart of the economic plan for our region drawn up by the Local Enterprise Partnership. This plan has the support of the business and political community.
What if the Good Fairy then granted a second wish? My work on both the environment and agriculture committees of the European Parliament has made me very conscious of the fact that `the economy is entirely owned subsidiary of the environment`. It would therefore be a tragic error if we were to create jobs in our region in a way that damaged the environment. Rather we need to create jobs that help improve the environment i.e. ´green jobs´.
In my journeys around the highways and byways of the European Union over the last three and a bit years as an MEP I have found myself repeatedly coming across something called the bioeconomy.
I´ve discovered that the bioeconomy is made up of those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea to produce food, materials and energy. Using resources such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms we can replace oil and coal, the use of which we now know is causing climate change.
At a European level the bioeconomy is being hailed as the next wave of our economic development and should provide major opportunities for innovation, jobs and growth to help re-industrialise Europe.
If the bioeconomy can re-industrialise Europe surely it can help re-industrialise the North East? If the bioeconomy is predicted to create 700,000 new jobs across Europe, then 70,000 of these could be in the UK and 7,000 of these in the North East should be possible.
Next month I will visit the world’s most efficient bioproduct mill recently completed by the Metsa Group at Aanekoski in Central Finland. Sweden and Finland are out there leading the way on the bioeconomy with a particular focus on using materials from forests to produce a range of environmentally friendly products including packaging, textile fibres, industrial sugars, chemicals, fertilizers, energy products and construction timbers. As far as the Scandinavians are concerned wood is the new plastic.
In Europe alone, around 100 billion plastic bags are used each year. This figure has to be multiplied many times over when the rest of the world is included. When this plastic ends up in seas and oceans, the waste gives rise to serious environmental and human health problems. Wood based bags of similar strength and durability are now available to substitute for plastic with the added advantage that it can be easily recycled.
I’m conscious we don´t have the tree cover that Finland does but we do now need to significantly increase forest cover in Scotland and the North of England, which will be affected as we leave the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) after Brexit. The CAP has paid out a level of subsidy to farmers which in some cases, sheep farming in particular, has become economically unstainable. Over the next 20 years we should be looking at shifting 50% of what is currently sheep farming over to forestry.
A doubling of UK forest cover would provide multiple benefits including providing a future feedstock for an emerging bioeconomy in the North East of England. Admittedly trees do grow slowly but in the short to medium term we can use the region´s existing infrastructure, in particular the ports of Tyne and Blyth to import wood pellets and timber on a large enough scale to supply a biorefinery and associated activities.
The government are due to publish a bioeconomy strategy for the UK which could help provide the framework for the North East to exploit an existing gap in the UK market, that being a wood based bioeconomy.
Working with our universities, the Forestry Commission, farmers and landowners as well as business it should be possible to produce a road map that could deliver those two Good Fairy wishes; more and better jobs that are also beneficial to the environment, enabling us to leave a greener region for our children to live and grow up in.
This column was originally published in The Journal newspaper on 27 March 2018.
Creating green jobs like those found in Finland in the Bio-economy.