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The Quest for EU Trade Data

As can be read in an earlier news article, 35 of the most relevant value chains for bio-based products were selected for within the HARMONITOR project. Then we were left to wonder “Where are these bio-based products made, and where do they end up?”.

After much contemplation, we started with our search by looking for the trade of these products. Our goals were to figure out the trade within the EU, but also which other countries (in Asia, Africa, America, Oceania...) export these products to the EU, and which other countries import their products from the EU. Trade within the EU is well documented by Eurostat, the EU statistical office. Eurostat stores all of the Member States’ trade data in the Comext database. After some issues with differences between import and export data, the Comext database was able to answer all of our questions about trade within the EU (EU countries to other EU countries). The database showed us that for many of the products, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are some of the main ‘trade hubs’, where a lot of products are produced, but also re-traded. Unfortunately, Eurostat only uses the data declared by the EU Member States, leading to some gaps in trade data from countries outside of the EU. As such, we kept on looking for other databases which could answer our questions about imports to and exports from countries outside of the EU.

After a while we came across the UN Comtrade database. This database seemed like the perfect place to find this information. The database includes information from many years, of many products, and best of all, many many countries! However, the website was not as great as it seemed. The website was often overloaded, leading to many error messages and frustrations. After much annoyance (and figuring out that the website worked a lot better when logged in), we were finally able to request trade data of countries outside of the EU.

The intra-EU data from Comext and extra-EU data from the UN Comtrade database were then combined and presented in one clear dataset and table. This data was then used as the input for an interactive trade flow map, which is available on the HARMONITOR website. The trade flow map does not only show the raw (and boring) data but gives a visual overview of the trade flows in the form of arrows. The larger the trade flow, the larger and darker the arrow. The map also allows you to view the imports and exports of a specific country and shows the trade of all the different value chains in one place.

While this was already looking quite nice, the team stumbled upon the next problem. Some of the value chains selected were ‘drop-in’ chemicals. These chemicals are usually fossil-based but do have a bio-based alternative available, but these often have a very small market (compared to its fossil counterpart). So, while the trade data about the chemicals are available, this is usually for the entire trade of the chemical, and not specifically the (small) trade of the bio-based alternative.

As such, the team has decided to take on the next challenge and scout around for traces of information on the production and trade of these ‘drop-in’ bio-based chemicals!


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