UNECE releases study analyzing future effects of policy, strategy changes on Europe's forests; Europe expected to remain a net exporter of wood, forest products

GENEVA , September 23, 2011 (press release) – Europeans have high expectations of their forests which must meet increasing and sometimes conflicting environmental, social and economic demands. Policy makers must balance the conservation of biodiversity, the need to sequester and store carbon, adaptation to a changing climate and the provision of opportunities for recreation and leisure, while also supplying wood for energy and raw material use.

The European Forest Sector Outlook Study II (EFSOS II), which covers the EU 27, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, provides pictures of the consequences of today's policy choices for the forest of tomorrow. “Policy makers do have choices to make. We trust this study will help them to make the best informed decision for the future of European forests”, said Paola Deda, Chief of the UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section, in presenting this study.

If no major policies or strategies are changed in the forest sector, consumption of forest products and wood energy will grow steadily and wood supply will expand to meet this demand. Forest area is expected to continue to expand, increasing by 6%, or 12 million ha by 2030, an area slightly larger than Bulgaria. In 2030 demand for wood will be 20% higher than in 2010 with slower growth from the forest products industry and faster growth for energy. To meet this demand, all components of supply will have to expand, especially harvest residues.

Forests are the largest terrestrial carbon stock and one of the few ways man can influence sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. It is important that this stock be protected while guaranteeing wood supply. What is the right balance between these not always compatible objectives? EFSOS II finds that the best strategy is to combine forest management focused on carbon accumulation in the forest (longer rotations and a greater share of thinnings) with a steady flow of wood for products and energy. In the long term, however, the sequestration capacity limit of the forest will be reached, and the only potential for further mitigation will be regular harvesting, to store the carbon in harvested wood products and to avoid emissions by substituting wood for non-renewable materials and energy sources.

Wood is by far the largest source of renewable energy in Europe now, and if it is to play its part in reaching renewable energy targets, supply would have to increase by nearly 50% in the next twenty years. Achieving this would require an unprecedented mobilisation of high volumes of all types of wood and would have significant environmental, financial and institutional costs. In addition, 30 million m3 of wood would need to be imported from other regions or large areas of agricultural land would have to be put under short rotation coppice (a practice whereby fast growing tree species are cut down to a low stump and go on to produce many new stems).

However, if biodiversity is to be the key priority for policymakers, for instance by setting aside more land for conservation and changing forest management to favour biodiversity, the supply of wood from European forest in 2030 would be around 12% less than present. This would necessitate reduced consumption of products and energy and/or increased imports from other regions and/or intensified use of other sources like landscape care wood, recovered wood and short rotation coppice.

EFSOS II also imagines the consequences of a more innovative approach to product design, supply and marketing as well as to forest management. Innovation could create, defend or expand markets, create new opportunities (for instance, in so-called "biorefineries", producing a wide range of organic chemicals from wood) reduce costs and increase profitability. Forest management also needs innovative approaches, for instance through payment for ecosystem services.

According to EFSOS II results, Europe is, and will remain, in all scenarios, a net exporter of wood and forest products. Projections also show a steady rise in prices of forest products and wood over the whole period, driven by expanding global demand and increasing scarcity in other regions. There are also win-win opportunities in developing the use of harvest residues, recovered wood and landscape care wood (from urban and highway trees). These sources have the potential to increase by 50%, reducing waste disposal problems for society as a whole.

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