The short summary of the contributions above shows that articles contributing to the special section cover a wide array of social dimensions of the forest-based bioeconomy. They range from review and discursive approaches to consumer studies. The reviews do not only provide the state of art on the social dimensions of bioeconomy but also present a snapshot of the international scientific discourse on the bioeconomy. A study on media outlines a different form of discourse and focuses on Spain. Two other contributions also have a specific country focus, Finland and Slovakia. Additionally, the article of Masiero et al. (2020) presents a cross-national analysis of Europe.
The studies of the special section do not present representative overarching results on the social dimensions of forest bioeconomy in Europe or on a specific country or group of actors. Instead, they provide an overview of the diversity of social scientific studies with a central focus on discourses and perceptions on the forest bioeconomy, thereby allowing for a more nuanced picture. With the organizing questions building the overarching framework of this special section, similarities and patterns across the studies are possible to uncover. Results will be presented in the following in line with the organizing questions.
Political actors and governments as agents of change in the forest bioeconomy
Change agency in the forest bioeconomy can be observed in different ways. The most direct way is the perception of actors (be it self-perception or the perception of others) attributing agency. Another way is if the power of agents can be deconstructed, e.g. in form of ideas or institutionalization and resource allocation leading to mainstreaming or dominance in specific discourses and perceptions.
The former has been observed in the literature review of Holmgren et al. (2020), supporting findings of earlier studies in which political actors were perceived as central agents in the bioeconomy. Despite this finding, they also recognize that scientific articles have identified broad participation and inclusion as a prerequisite for a successful transformation. The central role of political and governmental actors is also mirrored in the article on the media discourse around the forest bioeconomy in Spain (Sanz-Hernandez et al. 2020). The authors conclude that the discourse is constructed by governmental actors with limited presence of other stakeholders, except for experts in media reporting.
Beyond this directly attributed agency, the articles also reveal that political ideas have been taken up. Holmgren et al. (2020) assume that social scientific literature follows the general ideas of a forest bioeconomy as presented in political strategies. Starting from an understanding that “social transformations are a long-term democratic project where definition of new socially shared meaning (…) and the inclusion of new actors are central (…)”, leads the authors to a critical conclusion that social scientific analyses of forest bioeconomy lack a broader and critical perspective.
The regional differences between the level of media attention paid to forest bioeconomy in Spain might also serve as an indicator of the power of political agency to stimulate discourses and perceptions. At the sub-national level, in some regions of Spain the bioeconomy is placed as a key issue on the political agenda. Correspondingly, media attention towards forest bioeconomy is higher in these regions than in others (Sanz-Hernandez et al. 2020). That the political attention and push for bioeconomy has an indirect effect on awareness and perceptions is also supported by the study of Masiero et al. (2020). Results from the cross-national comparison of students’ perceptions show, not surprisingly, that those countries that have been early political starters with bioeconomy strategies in Europe (in particular Finland) have advanced university programs addressing bioeconomy further than others. This is in turn corresponds with greater knowledge about bioeconomy and a higher level of satisfaction with these programs amongst students.
The issue of sustainability is central in the different articles of this special section. However, there are significant differences in the approaches taken. Some articles start from the assumption that replacing fossil-based materials and products is in general a first step in transformation towards sustainability that serves ecological needs (Navrátilová et al. 2020; Kylkilahti et al. 2020). Holmgren et al. (2020) confirm that this normative starting point, whereby sustainability is limited to the use of renewable bio-based products replacing fossil-based products and hinting at long-term sustainable yield of forest biomass, is used in the social scientific discourse on bioeconomy. Others start from a more open, partly critical perspective (D’Amato et al. 2020; Sanz-Hernandez et al. 2020) assessing whether and how sustainability is addressed in certain fora or by specific groups.
The former approach is supported by the general trend of transformation towards bioeconomy as a response to overcome negative impacts of non-renewable resources on the environment. Navrátilová et al. (2020) acknowledge that consumers in Slovakia see the need to minimise negative impacts of materials and products on the environment and thus the imperative of sustainability. They therefore seek a move to renewables. This starting point is accompanied by the increasing woody biomass consumption in Slovakia, which the authors predict will become the most important renewable energy source in the future. Their assumption is mirrored by their survey results, showing that the public attributes eco-friendliness to wood material while considering that non-renewables are not eco-friendly. Surprisingly, and contradictory, other bio-based materials are perceived as not being as eco-friendly as wood. The authors assume that a lack of information might be the reason for this difference. The article of Kylkilahti et al. (2020) follows a similar direction and comes to a similar conclusion. Their survey shows that multi-storey wood buildings (MSWB) are generally perceived in Finland to be environmentally friendly. However, this attribute does not stand alone and seems to be strongly connected to the aesthetics of MSWBs. The case of wood materials in Slovakia being viewed as more eco-friendly than other bio-based materials might similarly be affected by other attributes of this resource.
The other articles of this special section approach sustainability more openly. They reconfirm results of earlier studies presenting the bioeconomy discourse and perceptions as focusing in particular on economic growth rather than on the full spectrum of sustainability. For example, the article of Sanz-Hernandez et al. (2020) shows that the Spanish media discourse describes forest bioeconomy as an opportunity for economic growth while at the same time allowing for increased resilience to climate change, prevention of forest fires and promotion of regional development. This way of framing the bioeconomy presented in policy programs and strategies in diverse EU member states is described as a win–win solution, with economic growth and development being in line with environmental protection and attempts to respond to negative environmental impacts (Kleinschmit et al. 2017). Critical or negative reporting about bioeconomy are neglected in the Spanish media. This seems to indicate that the narrative provided by political strategies has been mainstreamed in the media discourse.
The review of literature connecting bioeconomy and ecosystem services analysed by D’Amato et al. (2020) confirms results of earlier studies that issues like biomass production, biotechnology and agroecology are particularly central in the scientific discourse. Both technological and economic issues are more often addressed than all others within the reviewed articles. In contrast, the more general question of the sustainability of bio-based processes, production and services is addressed only to a minor degree. Some of the reviewed articles additionally express scepticism about sustainability assessments as an appropriate instrument to evaluate sustainability.
Results from the cross-country student survey mirror this framing of bioeconomy, showing that bioeconomy lectures in universities are mainly embedded in economic and technology courses as opposed to social science courses (Masiero et al. 2020). Therefore, it might not come as a surprise that forest students perceive bioeconomy first and foremost as an opportunity for the forest sector, with students in only Germany and Austria also raising some concerns about sustainability (ibidem).
Divergence in the use of the bioeconomy concept
This special section reconfirms the divergence in the use of the bioeconomy concept that has been identified earlier in the literature. However, different patterns within this divergence can be identified. On the one hand, differences in the use of the concept are based on the different design or framing of the bioeconomy, which for the case of Europe has already been identified in diverse studies (Kleinschmit et al. 2017; Ramcilovic-Suominen and Pülzl 2018). On the other hand, regional disparity relates to the fact that the level of attention paid to the (forest) bioeconomy differs depending on regions, countries, the natural resources available and other factors.
A high level of geographical spread internationally is an indicator of (political) attention paid to the bioeconomy, with about 50 countries having already established a bioeconomy strategy, including countries in South America and Asia (Bioökonomierat 2018). In contrast, the focus of social scientific studies on bioeconomy is less widespread but rather dominated by articles from authors with affiliations in northern industrial countries, particularly from Northern Europe (Finland, Sweden and Germany) (Holmgren et al. 2020). D’Amato et al. (2020) highlight that this is not only true for purely social scientific studies but also for those dealing with the interlinkage between bioeconomy and ecosystem services. This article shows that the authors of the reviewed articles are from the same countries, the US, Germany and Finland, with co-authorship strongly interconnected within a European network.
The article of Masiero et al. (2020) adds another dimension to these results by zooming into the perceptions of forest students. As students in the field of natural resources, they not only represent potential future stakeholders of the forest bioeconomy but it can also be assumed that they are more exposed to information and knowledge about natural resources and to the bioeconomy than other groups in the population. Surprisingly, the survey results show that still one third of the responding students have not heard about the bioeconomy. Masiero et al. (2020) have uncovered that amongst the students, the awareness of the bioeconomy concept differs along a north-south gradient in Europe, with highest awareness of and knowledge about the bioeconomy amongst students in the Northern European countries (particularly Finland) and only low awareness in the Southern European countries. Correspondingly, the level of satisfaction with the university programs on bioeconomy is far higher in Finland than in Spain and France. The scarce penetration of forest bioeconomy in the media in Spain recognized by Sanz-Hernandez et al. (2020) adds to this picture. It can be assumed that the attention paid to bioeconomy in the media as well as in universities (and correspondingly by students) in Spain is not as high as in other European countries where bioeconomy has already been stressed and pushed for a long time.
Apart from the national setting of bioeconomy, disparities between perceptions can also result from the place of residence. Navrátilová et al. (2020) identified that rural residents have a much more positive perception of wood and other natural materials than the urban population. Hence, not only might the political focus on bioeconomy cause asymmetries in awareness and perceptions but also peoples socio-cultural and geographic situation.
Factors relevant to perception
This special section has provided a broad overview of studies investigating the social dimension of the bioeconomy that start from different disciplinary backgrounds and assumptions. According to these, the authors have focused on different factors that describe and explain the construction of the discourses and perceptions at hand. Geographical divergence as one major factor explaining variations in awareness and perceptions of bioeconomy is already introduced above.
Other socio-demographic factors relevant for explaining differences in the perception addressed in the contributions to this special section are gender, age, pre-existing level of knowledge, previous exposure and consumption style. They generally reconfirm already existing results. For example, assessing the factor gender in their article, Navrátilová et al. (2020) show that women are more focussed on environmental factors. Similarly, the same study validates the pattern that with increasing age people tend to show higher preference for wood materials than for other products.
The article of Kylkilahti et al. (2020) adds that it is not only consumers’ ecological attitudes that play a role in their perception of MSWB but that their perceptions also differ in relation to other factors, e.g. knowledge and childhood experience of MSWB. In the case of the latter, a more positive attitude amongst those who have been exposed to the product earlier in life is observable.