The circular bioeconomy: a driver for system integration

Jul 2024

New open-access paper published in the Journal Energy, Sustainability and Society, based on a work carried out by members of IEA Bioenergy Task 40 (deployment) and Task 44 (flexibility and system integration).

Download the full paper “The circular bioeconomy: a driver for system integration”


Human and earth system modeling, traditionally centered on the interplay between the energy system and the atmosphere, are facing a paradigm shift. The IPCC’s mandate for comprehensive, cross-sectoral climate action emphasizes avoiding the vulnerabilities of narrow sectoral approaches. This study explores the circular bioeconomy, highlighting the intricate interconnections among agriculture, forestry, aquaculture, technological advancements, and ecological recycling. Collectively, these sectors play a pivotal role in supplying essential resources to meet the food, material, and energy needs of a growing global population. We pose the pertinent question of what it takes to integrate these multifaceted sectors into a new era of holistic systems thinking and planning. This paradigm shift facilitates the incorporation of varied resource inflows and product outflows, duly considering residues, by-products, and circular flows intrinsic to the circular bioeconomy.


The foundation for discussion is provided by a novel graphical representation encompassing statistical data on food, materials, energy flows, and circularity. This representation aids in constructing an inventory of technological advancements and climate actions that have the potential to significantly reshape the structure and scale of the economic metabolism in the coming decades.

In this context, the three dominant mega-trends—population dynamics, economic developments, and the climate crisis—compel us to address the potential consequences of the identified actions, all of which fall under the four categories of substitutionefficiencysufficiency, and reliability measures. Substitution and efficiency measures currently dominate systems modeling. Including novel bio-based processes and circularity aspects might require only expanded system boundaries. Conversely, paradigm shifts in systems engineering are expected to center on sufficiency and reliability actions. Effectively assessing the impact of sufficiency measures will necessitate substantial progress in inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration, primarily due to their non-technological nature. While often implicitly present, measures enhancing system resilience, robustness, or reliability are not explicitly addressed in long-term and economy-wide modeling efforts. Placing emphasis on modeling the reliability and resilience of transformation pathways represents a distinct and emerging frontier that highlights the significance of an integrated network of networks.

Technologies such as combined bioenergy heat and power plants, the storage of renewable gases, the storage and trade of biomass commodities and green hydrogen, biorefineries producing biomaterials, food and energy products, and versatile conversion technologies, that can handle a variety of heterogenous, low-quality biomass inputs and produce a spectrum of products, exemplify system flexibilization. Such technologies and infrastructure enable the shifting of resources through time, space, and between sectors, to balance scarcities with surpluses, improving reliability and efficiency simultaneously. To seize the opportunities of these technologies in systems engineering, we must move the multisector coupling service of the circular bioeconomy into the spotlight.


Existing and emerging circular bioeconomy practices can serve as prime examples of system integration. These practices facilitate the interconnection of complex biomass supply chain networks with other networks encompassing feedstock-independent renewable power, hydrogen, CO2, water, and other biotic, abiotic, and intangible resources. On the one hand, this network of networks introduces heightened systemic risks for potential cascading failures; on the other hand, it offers opportunities for efficiency enhancements while maintaining reliability. Elevating the prominence of these connectors will empower policymakers to steer the amplification of synergies and mitigation of tradeoffs among systems, sectors, and goals.

Citation: Schipfer, F., Burli, P., Fritsche, U. et al. The circular bioeconomy: a driver for system integration. Energ Sustain Soc 14, 34 (2024).