The concept of the bioeconomy has recently risen to great popularity with governments and corporations around the world as a new paradigm for a sustainable economy. Its essential element is the substitution of fossil resources with renewable raw materials in all kinds of industrial production processes. Notwithstanding the various potential socio-ecological conflicts over it, however, the bioeconomy is still far from being a reality and – beyond the basic conception mentioned above – it is still highly contentious what the bioeconomy actually is or should be, which often leads to a certain vagueness and arbitrariness when it comes to bioeconomy strategies. German bioeconomy policy is a prime example of this. Even though there is a distinct governmental bioeconomy strategy, the German bioeconomy presents itself as a highly fragmented and heterogeneous, patchy and scrappy policy field that is much more shaped from the bottom-up, i.e. by the idiosyncratic policy processes and practices of its numerous, already existing policy areas, than from the top-down, i.e. by an overarching policy strategy. Nonetheless, these idiosyncratic policy processes are not arbitrary or random, but subject to specific, policy process-inherent dynamics that in turn are the result of particular problem structures, actor constellations and institutional contexts in these policy areas.
Against this backdrop, this paper focuses on the idiosyncratic political processes of the bioeconomy in Germany by particularly inquiring these aspects with regard to the policy areas of bioplastics, biofuels and bioenergy. More specifically, we will do so based on a novel analytical approach, the political process inherent dynamics approach (PIDA). PIDA is especially useful for the analysis of such idiosyncratic policy processes, because it challenges the idea of political decision-making processes as stepwise, rational problem-solving activities. Rather, drawing on a ‘garbage can’ understanding of such processes, PIDA draws attention to actors, institutions, instruments, problem structures and situational aspects as explanatory factors that shape political processes and outcomes by their interplay and their inherent dynamics.
The application of this analytical framework to several case studies from the abovementioned policy areas shows that the political processes of the bioeconomy – although they are not as consistent and problem solving oriented as it is often assumed or implied – show specific similarities and differences. Thus, for instance, while the general problem structures regarding the scarcity of land/biomass and the competition between its usages is similar in all of the three policy areas, the effect of this in terms of policy-making is markedly different. While ambitious policies for the promotion of bioenergy and biofuels have been adopted, this is not the case for bioplastics. Based on PIDA, we can trace this back to different institutional frameworks and path-dependencies in these policy areas, which, in turn, lead to different actor and power constellations that again impact political decision-making processes. Thus, we not only show the idiosyncratic nature of bioeconomy policy processes, but also elaborate on the specific dynamics that shape these processes in order to reveal overarching patterns of the political processes of the bioeconomy.