Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Is There Enough Wood in the World to Meet the Sustainability Demand?

Climate
A lumber cuts a tree with a chainsaw. Taiyou Nomachi / Getty Images

By Richard Orange

The harvesting machine takes just one second to fell the towering spruce, and another to strip the branches and scan its trunk for defects.


"This one is very straight," operator Antonio Petersson Kvennefelt says of the trunk gripped by the arm of his machine, as a screen in front of him flashes with data.

"The computer decides what it wants the logs to be. This one is for Långasjö, a sawmill in Sweden."

Kvennefelt has been working in the forests around the city of Växjö in southern Sweden for more than 20 years. When he started out, decisions were mostly left to the forest workers' judgement, but the industry is now more high-tech.

"The computer makes sure each sawmill gets exactly what that sawmill wants," he explains.

And across the world, what saw and pulp mills want is more and more wood.

Demand for Wood 

According to the latest figures from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global forest production hit record levels in 2018. Up 11% on the year before.

"We see an increasing demand for almost all of our products," says Göran Örlander, strategist at Södra, Sweden's largest association of forest owners. "The most obvious demand is for biofuels at the moment. Everybody wants to have biofuels to replace fossil fuels."

The idea is that burning wood becomes close to carbon neutral if the forests from where it is taken are replenished at the same rate as they are felled for fuel.

But critics question whether this is the case in every country which claims to provide sustainable wood, and say some of what is supplying the current boom in biomass fuels comes from existing forests rather than sustainably managed plantations.

They also point to the carbon emitted from the soil of cleared forests, and to the emissions created in the felling and processing of wood products.

In 2017, 200 scientists wrote to the EU questioning its assumption that wood biomass for energy should be treated as a renewable fuel.

Nonetheless, according to the trade body Swedish Forest Industries, the country's trees are now capturing and storing a net 48 million tons of CO2 a year as they grow, while another seven million are stored in long-lasting products made from Swedish wood. Taken together, that is enough to make Sweden effectively carbon neutral.

But Professor Johan Bergh, who heads the forestry department at Växjö's Linnaeus University, just a short walk away from Södra's offices, says there are very few other countries in the same position.

"Globally I don't think the forest resource is enough," he told DW. Particularly not, he added, to supply the transport industry with wood-derived bioethanol or biodiesel.

"A lot of forest would be needed to replace fossil fuels in vehicles," he says. "It would require at least half of the new forest growth in Sweden at a national level, and of course at a global level, it would be much, much more."

Other industries are also increasingly showing an interest in wood as a resource.

Not Just for Heating 

Södra has teamed up with Dutch airline KLM to explore the feasibility of producing jet fuel from forest biomass, and is also working with the Scandinavian airline SAS on plans for a pilot biofuel plant in the north of Sweden.

Bioplastic packaging — some of which relies on wood fibers — currently makes up just one percent of total plastics production. But that is expected to grow over the coming years.

Architecture firms are also racing to use cross-laminated timber to replace carbon-intensive concrete and steel, and wood-based fibers now represent about six percent of all textiles.

The attraction is clear. When wood is used in buildings, for example, carbon is taken out of the carbon cycle and stored for as long as the building stands.

But according to preliminary findings from a joint United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and UN Food and Agriculture Organization study into future supply and demand scenarios, even if every effort were made to maximize global forest cover, doubling the use of wood in buildings, furniture and other products would reduce rather than increase the amount of carbon sequestered globally.

"The projected increase in wood products carbon in this scenario was not enough to offset the loss in biomass carbon due to increased removals depleting forest stocks," the authors wrote.

The Limits of Wood 

There are also limits to the use of wood for heat and power.

Back in 2010, EUwood, a study led by the University of Hamburg warned that "even if all measures for increased wood mobilization" were implemented, by 2020 the European Union's domestic sources would struggle to satisfy wood demands and meet renewable energy targets.

By 2018 the EU was already supplementing its wood pellet consumption with imports to the tune of eight million tons. And some conservationists argue member states' use of biomass is driving deforestation and boosting carbon dioxide levels.

But at Växjö Energy, a Swedish heat and power plant, which became a 100 percent biomass facility in December, chief executive Erik Tellgren is not worried about supply. He says forest owners currently leave most of the branches and tops of trees they cut down to rot.

"There is still a potential of at least twice the amount of residue streams in the forest today that is simply left there," he says.

There are also other potential changes that would create space for the expansion of global forest cover. Rod Taylor, Global Director of the Forests Program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), believes a shift in global diet away from meat would allow the replanting of huge areas of marginal pastureland.

"The really big win comes through plantations in countries where wood grows fast, like in Brazil," he argues. "If you have very eroded, low productivity pastureland, and you start planting that up with trees, it could pull a lot of carbon out of the sky."

Bergh believes it would be possible to at least double forest stocks in key exporting countries such as Sweden, Canada and Russia, while increasing production at the same time.

But with so many industries now looking to the forests for their future carbon-neutral feedstock, even that would be unlikely to cover growing demand.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A resident works in the vegetable garden of the Favela Nova Esperanca – a "green favela" which reuses everything and is subject to the ethics of permaculture – in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Feb. 14, 2020. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP via Getty Images

Farmers are the stewards of our planet's precious soil, one of the least understood and untapped defenses against climate change. Because of its massive potential to store carbon and foundational role in growing our food supply, soil makes farming a solution for both climate change and food security.

Read More Show Less
Once the virus escapes into the air inside a building, you have two options: bring in fresh air from outside or remove the virus from the air inside the building. Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

By Shelly Miller

The vast majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs indoors, most of it from the inhalation of airborne particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent the virus from spreading in a home or business would be to simply keep infected people away. But this is hard to do when an estimated 40% of cases are asymptomatic and asymptomatic people can still spread the coronavirus to others.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
California Senator Kamala Harris endorses Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Michigan on March 9, 2020. JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP via Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden made a historic announcement Tuesday when he named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 presidential election.

Read More Show Less
An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

Trending

A northern mockingbird on June 24, 2016. Renee Grayson / CC BY 2.0

Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).

Read More Show Less