For some time now I’ve been struck by the lack of a serious conversation about the vital need to ensure timber and fibre resources keep up with global demand.
For this reason, I recently travelled to London, Edinburgh and Rome with the primary objective of understanding better what positive role ACSFI (and sustainable forest-based industries in all our countries) could play in the global climate deliberations. I had noticed a great deal of talk about halting deforestation at the Glasgow COP (led by the UK), but had heard very little coming out of that conference about how this admirable goal would dove-tail with the need also to produce increasing volumes of timber and fibre for a growing world population?
As we know, the demand for timber and fibre products is trending upwards. What we are now seeing however is climate action policies slamming the demand accelerator to the floor.
All over the world, nations are banking on more timber and fibre to do the heavy lifting in our urgent drive to reduce emissions. They are throwing the (wooden) kitchen sink at it. More mass timber in construction. Demands that airlines switch to sustainable aviation fuels. Plastics are being banned in favour of fibre. Clothing manufacturers are being urged to get out of polyester and into rayon. It’s a growing list.
But the sobering fact is those same nations largely aren’t thinking about the obvious; where is the additional fibre for all these wonderful uses coming from?
The World Bank, Indufor, WWF, Gresham House and many others are now predicting demand for timber and fibre will triple or even quadruple by 2050.
So where is the equivalent tripling of supply? Where are the policies to ensure this happens in a sustainable way which works carefully with rural communities and especially Indigenous forest-based communities?
In too many other developed nations policymakers appear blind to this need. The UK imports 80% of its timber needs but in London, some suggested to me that growing more production trees in England wasn’t needed because supplies will always come from ‘overseas’. And I can’t leave my own country out of this critique. For all our vast size would you believe Australia imports up to a quarter of the softwood we need for our housing!? We have finally started to have a conversation in Australia about timber security but in the past, the retort in Sydney, Melbourne and our other large cities would also have been that our timber can also always come from ‘overseas’.
If we think globally however the problem with nations just presuming ever-increasing demands will be met from ‘overseas’ will increasingly mean surging markets will incentivize unscrupulous operators to drive roads deeper into the primary forests of the Congo and Southeast Asia. This will actually increase deforestation – the very thing we are all pledged to try to halt! Don’t forget Interpol already rates timber as the world’s second-largest illegal global trade.
We need to shake the world out of its ‘timber supply complacency’ and there is no time to lose. We need a global ambition and ultimately a pledge, signed up to by nations that have the capacity to grow fibre at an increasing scale.
We ultimately need policies that encourage the millions of agroforesters, and sophisticated market mechanisms which reward carbon, biodiversity and timber production for attracting the trillions in pension funds. We need more productivity from the vast natural or native forests and certainly no more arbitrary reductions in working forests. And we need significantly more planted forests. As I say to policymakers, who often raise eyebrows when one mentions plantations, their job should be to create settings that deliver the “right trees at the right scale in the right place for the right purpose”. In Scotland for example, a broadleaf forest planted next to a softwood sawmill makes no sense and neither does a Sitka spruce plantation five hundred expensive miles from the same sawmill.
AFPA and a range of timber, paper and forestry bodies will be shouting all this from the rafters at COP27 in Egypt. Wish us luck. The world needs us to succeed.