Are We Heading Towards a Timber Shortage Crisis?

Can productive forestry also help meet net-zero and biodiversity goals?
Are We Heading Towards a Timber Shortage Crisis?

As the world grapples with the dual challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, forests have emerged as crucial assets for addressing both issues. Commitments to halt and reverse deforestation have become integral components of international agreements like the UNFCCC, with many governments pledging to expand tree cover. In the UK, there has been a particular focus on forests and woodlands due to the current low tree cover and alarmingly high rates of biodiversity loss.

While tree planting initiatives have proliferated globally, very few of these projects have integrated timber production into their strategies. On the surface, it may seem challenging to reconcile productive forestry with efforts to reduce excess carbon dioxide and achieve net-zero goals due to the necessity of regular felling. However, as global demand for timber is projected to surge, driven by the construction industry's quest for sustainable alternatives, the world is hurtling towards a potential timber shortage crisis. This could result in escalating prices and an increased risk of unregulated deforestation. Is there a way to harness forests for carbon sequestration and biodiversity enhancement while also sustainably producing timber, thus resolving these apparent conflicts?

What are the forecasts for global timber demand?

Estimates suggest that global timber demand will experience a dramatic surge over the next two to three decades, potentially doubling or even quadrupling current requirements, according to the World Bank, far outstripping existing global supply levels. It will be driven mostly by the construction sector, which is currently responsible for 37% of global emissions and needs to find alternative materials to decarbonise. Additionally, shifts in preferences for housing towards lower-density constructions which use a lot of wood will further boost timber demand. Timber is the seen as an excellent alternative, being available at scale, and because it stores carbon for the long-term. While timber is often touted as the ultimate renewable resource, recent research questions the timeframe required to offset the carbon lost during felling and production processes.

Amidst growing geopolitical uncertainties, future access to non-domestic timber resources may become precarious. Russia is the largest global timber supplier but faces export sanctions that could disrupt timber supplies. Such scarcity could drive up prices, as evidenced by the pandemic-induced timber shortage in 2021, which led to a more than twenty percent price rise. These price increases have downstream effects, inflating project costs and causing delays in completion, potentially jeopardizing government housing construction targets if left unaddressed.

If the rising global demand for timber leads to increased deforestation, it could trigger a significant surge in carbon emissions. Such an outcome could see the timber industry contributing 10% of global carbon emissions by 2050, three times the proportion attributed to the aviation industry. Projections indicate that a ninety percent increase in wood product demand between 2010 and 2050 could result in an area equivalent to the continental United States being harvested. At a time when efforts should be focused on scaling up carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, this represents a catastrophic rise in emissions.

Current timber demand in the UK

The UK currently ranks as the world's third-largest net importer of timber, importing over eighty percent of its wood, primarily softwood from conifers, a concerning statistic for a country that has the ideal climate for growing trees. While tree coverage has increased to 13.4%, driven primarily by the planting of broadleaved deciduous trees, particularly in England, conifer planting rates have declined. Despite government efforts to boost tree planting rates and achieve a target of 16.5% tree cover in England by 2050, recent data indicates a 7% decrease in new planting and a 19% decrease in restocking. The shift away from conifer planting, coupled with declining tree planting rates, leaves the UK ill-prepared to meet any increase in domestic timber requirements.

Timber usage in the UK is split evenly between sawnwood, wood-based panels, and paper, but the demand for construction materials is growing and underscores the urgent need for sustainable timber sources. Despite the urgency of this demand, there have been virtually no new large-scale timber plantations created in the past three decades. With conifer planting rates declining, the UK faces a significant shortfall between demand and domestic supply, necessitating immediate action to prevent overreliance on imports. This will increase pressure on forests abroad, which may be less well-regulated than the UK and could lead to illegal deforestation.

Are we approaching a timber supply crisis in the UK?

Over the past thirty years, conifer plantations in the UK have undergone restructuring, favouring native broadleaved species, resulting in a substantial reduction in stocked areas. Insufficient replanting efforts to support existing demand, let alone accommodate increased demand, have exacerbated this situation, and led to a reduction in productive conifer forest. Forestry Commission data from 1997 revealed a loss of 40,000 hectares of coniferous forest in England over the previous 24 years, which has not been replanted. Forecasts from Forest Research predict a 50 million m3 reduction in conifer volume over the next twenty years, further widening the gap between demand and supply.

Recognizing the need to address these challenges and drive progress in planting more productive woodlands, the National Wood Strategy for England was published in late 2023. Developed by the England Forest and Wood-Based Industry Leadership Group (ILG) in collaboration with the Confederation of Forest Industries (CONFOR) and various forestry and environmental organizations, this strategy aims to establish a sustainable timber industry that contributes to net-zero goals and increasing biodiversity.

Can we reconcile increased timber supply security with reduced carbon emissions?

A recent study published in Nature assessed the potential impact of rising timber demand on global emissions and emphasised the importance of enhancing the productivity and area of timber plantations to mitigate emissions. By increasing yields in existing plantations by 50% over forty years, the study estimates a reduction of 600 million tons of emissions per year during this period. Improved harvesting techniques in tropical forests, which safeguard adjacent trees during felling, could yield an additional 200 million tons in savings. Furthermore, reducing reliance on woody biomass for fuel, particularly in regions like the U.S., British Columbia, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Southeast Asia, will slow the increased demand for wood. While the demand for roundwood timber currently equals that for fuel, a 40% reduction in woodfuel usage, instead of a twenty percent increase, could further decrease global emissions by 500 million tons.

Different tree species exhibit varying growth rates, influencing their efficacy in carbon sequestration. While slow-growing broadleaved woodlands favoured for conservation purposes offer long-term carbon storage benefits, faster-growing conifers provide more rapid carbon absorption. Modelling studies suggest that productive forestry plantations in the UK have greater potential to sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere by 2100, even when subject to harvesting and replanting. Although the amount of carbon stored by UK forests is increasing, tree planting rates still fall short of the government's target of achieving 16.5% tree cover for England. The National Wood Strategy for England advocates for raising this target to 17.5% and emphasises enhancing harvesting techniques and productivity per hectare to maximize commercial timber production's contribution to climate change mitigation.

In addition to carbon sequestration, productive forest plantations offer other ecosystem services such as water provisioning and preventing soil erosion, albeit to a lesser extent than native forests globally. While prioritizing native woodland planting has led to low conifer planting rates in the UK, evidence suggests that non-native conifer plantations also support biodiversity. Species like goldcrests, siskins, coal tits, crossbills, crested tits, red squirrels, and pine martens have adapted to the ecology of plantations and thrive in non-native forests. The UK Forestry Standard also mandates that new forest plantations include a minimum of 5% native broadleaved trees or shrubs, aiming to enhance biodiversity and reduce monocultures.

How should we address the impending timber crisis?

The National Wood Strategy outlines several goals to tackle the national timber shortage and ensure that commercial forestry aligns with climate and biodiversity objectives:

  1. Stabilize and then increase timber resources in England.
  2. Surpass the statutory government target for tree and woodland cover.
  3. Increase the utilization and lifespan of English wood.
  4. Create a predictable and supportive investment environment.
  5. Promote a consistent and positive narrative around productive woodlands.
  6. Develop a skilled workforce.

Within these goals are specific targets aimed at increasing timber production, investing in the forestry industry workforce, and maximizing ecosystem services provided by commercial forestry. These targets include ensuring that 40% of annual new planting in England comprises stocked coniferous species and aiming for an additional 104,000 hectares of stocked productive conifer forest in England by 2050. The strategy also targets 52,000 hectares of new productive broadleaved woodland by 2050 and advocates for a positive perception of productive forestry in England. Strategies to achieve these goals include offering attractive incentives for farmers to convert to woodland and streamlining the woodland creation application process to improve efficiency.

With enhanced collaboration and a well-defined strategy, the future of forestry in the UK holds promise, with opportunities to increase timber production while investing in ecosystem services. Timber production and environmental conservation need not be at odds; rather, they can complement each other, serving the interests of both people and the planet.

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