by Lauri Hetemäki (EFI), Marc Palahi (EFI) and Robert Nasi (CIFOR)
We dare not continue like this
Humanity is becoming too big for our planet. After relying on a fossil-based economy for 200 years, we are threatening to reach a tipping point, crossing the resilience boundaries of our world. Using the words of Greta Thunberg – how dare you continue like this! – it is time for transformational action.
We need to accelerate the transition from the existing global fossil and wasteful economy towards a renewable economy: a circular bioeconomy. Forests, sustainable forest management and forest-based solutions can catalyse this transformation: advancing the bioeconomy while enhancing biodiversity and supporting wealth creation in rural and urban areas.
Wood is the most versatile renewable material on earth. To mitigate climate change, we have to replace fossil-based materials like concrete, steel, plastics or synthetic textiles with sustainable, renewable materials like wood.
But how much wood do we have to support a transformational change to a sustainable economy? For which purposes should we use it?
It is important to emphasize that the most immediate way forward for a sustainable future is reducing consumption. This will help in climate change mitigation and in cutting resource use. It is also crucial to start using wood efficiently, for purposes in which it has a comparative advantage from a sustainability and circular economy perspective relative to other materials.
Current demand for wood
Wood from global forests is currently used roughly half for energy and half for industrial purposes, and almost 4 billion cubic metres of roundwood were produced in 2018 (see Table 1). Regional demand and supply has changed in recent decades, especially due to China’s increasing demand.
Future demand for roundwood?
There are several different future trends in world roundwood production (or consumption). Some of the traditional products will require more roundwood (e.g. packaging products), some less due to decline in demand (e.g., graphics papers). Some of the new emerging bioeconomy products will increase roundwood demand (e.g. engineered wood products), while others may use the side-streams of current products, such as pulp side-products (e.g. lignin) for new biochemicals, or forest residues for biofuels. The latter therefore do not generate “new” demand for roundwood, but are based on increasing resource-efficiency and better use of the sidestreams.
There are also trends that can have significant impact on the traditional use of wood, especially for energy. For example, consider that due to technological efficiency fuel wood consumption in Africa could be improved e.g. by 30%, and/or 30% of the wood energy could be produced using other energy sources (e.g. natural gas, solar panels, wind energy). Then, the same amount of energy as in 2018 could be produced by using about 208 million cubic metres less wood. This is clearly more than Canada’s total roundwood production, or equal to the total roundwood production of the three biggest producers in the EU combined in 2018 (Finland, Germany and Sweden). Clearly, similar development could take place also in other big traditional energy wood consumption areas, such as in China and India.
There is a lack of systematic and up-to-date outlook studies that would give a good basis for making conclusions on the world roundwood consumption in the decades to come (Hetemäki & Hurmekoski 2016). So we computed a business-as-usual scenario for future development using the most recent data available. It is based on the assumption that the same trend that has taken place in this century, i.e. 2000-2018, would continue in future decades. According to this simple scenario, roundwood production would increase from 3.89 billion cubic metres in 2018 to 4.07 Bm3 in 2050, i.e., by 16 % or 619 million cubic metres.
How big is this increase from a global forest perspective, and would there be enough forest resources to satisfy this increase sustainably?
Are there enough forest resources?
To illustrate how this increase could be met “theoretically”, we assumed that the harvesting intensity in Russia would increase from its current level (30%) to that of the current EU average (65%). This would imply Russian production could generate 554 million m3 more wood than today, and this alone could satisfy 90% of the world roundwood demand increase projected by our scenario. In fact, considering the current challenges that Russia faces, the increasing use of the forest for bioeconomy purposes could in many ways be desirable. Russia is currently suffering from large forest fires (5-15 million hectares per annum), a significant amount of illegal logging (estimates up to 20 million m3 per annum), poor forest management and regeneration, and Russia is an especially large fossil-intensive and export economy. All these patterns are problematic from environmental (e.g. climate), economic and social perspectives. Increasing roundwood production and bioeconomy could provide incentives to take better care of Russian forests.
Of course, the Russian example above is purely hypothetical and would require many difficult changes to take place before it could be realized. Moreover, in reality the world roundwood demand increase would be satisfied from many different regions and countries, not just from Russia. Yet it illustrates that the scale of increase in wood use would not be “alarming” from the global forest perspective.
However, it would be essential to implement policies and monitoring systems that would ensure that roundwood procurement would not cause trade-offs for biodiversity and the other ecosystem services that global forests provide.
What difference could wood make?
The above situation in global forests and wood consumption patterns seem to facilitate the transformational changes towards a sustainable circular bioeconomy which we called for in the beginning of this blog. Let’s look at the implications of moving globally in greater quantity to wood-based solutions in just one of the many economic sectors: the textiles sector.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017), global textile industry emissions are at 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per-year, close to the level of emissions from the automobile industry. Given that wood fibre-based textiles are estimated to have around a 3 to 5 times lower carbon footprint than cotton and synthetic fibres (Leskinen et al. 2018 and Seppälä et al. 2019), the potential substitution impact could be large. For example, assuming world production was 50% based on wood textiles, the reduction of CO2 emissions could be in the range of 400 to 480 million tons compared to current emissions.
The Green Deal needs wood
Quite recently, requests for a “New Green Deal”, by EU and USA politicians are at the centre of measures to tackle climate change. It is clear that these Deals cannot be truly green and sustainable without also recognizing that they require the use of natural capital and resources like wood from forests to replace fossils and non-renewables. Thus, we should not only see the forest, but also the wood in the forest. However, the use of wood needs to be done even more sustainably, resource-efficiently and circularly than we have done in the past. We dare not to do otherwise.
Read more: Hetemäki, L., Palahí, M. and Nasi, R. 2020. Seeing the wood in the forests. Knowledge to Action 1, European Forest Institute. https://doi.org/10.36333/k2a01
Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017. A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications
Hetemäki L. and Hurmekoski E. 2016. Forest Products Markets under Change: Review and Research Implications. Current Forestry Reports. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40725-016-0042-z
Leskinen,P., Cardellini, G., González-García, S., Hurmekoski, E., Sathre, R., Seppälä, J., Smyth, C., Stern, T. & Verkerk, P.J. 2018. Substitution effects of wood-based products in climate change mitigation. From Science to Policy 7. European Forest Institute. https://doi.org/10.36333/fs07
Seppälä, J., Heinonen, T., Pukkala, T., Kilpeläinen, A., Mattila, T., Myllyviita, T., Asikainen, A., Peltola, H., 2019. Effect of increased wood harvesting and utilization on required greenhouse gas displacement factors of wood-based products and fuels. J. Environ. Manage. 247, 580–587. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JENVMAN.2019.06.031
 In the USA, this has been most notably demanded by some Democratic Party Members of the Congress (e.g. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). In December 2019, the EU published its communication on “The European Green Deal” (European Commission 2019).
Photo: Joey Kyber/unsplash
The text suggests that natual gas, solar panels and wind energy are substitutes for wood as sources of energy in a carbon-constrained future. The remaining capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 from the burning of natural gas is now so small and is decreasing so rapidly that natural gas should not be presented as if it is a “transition fuel”.
There is insufficient time for trees being planted now to reach maturity by 2030, the year by which greenhouse gas emissions must have reduced globaly to roughly half what they were last year.
The text rightly refers to the risk of fire, but not that of diseases (which are affecting western Canada and now central Europe). Those risks will increase as climate collapse accelerates and as monoculture wood plantations proceed.
Advocacy for a circular bioeconomy may have merit (but not if this relies on BECCS). However, it risks being perceived as disingenuous unless (as this blog commendably does) it is presented as secondary, behind the steep reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation which are urgently needed – and which have to some extent been made, in response to covid-19.