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Growing the forest bioeconomy

Forests provide the base for innovative technologies that can decarbonise the global economy. But policies that build on Sustainable Forest Management are vital in order to deploy this renewable resource at scale.

Of the 51bn tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) added to the atmosphere each year, less than 30 per cent originate from electricity production. While increasing renewable power generation is critical in the bid to reach net zero by 2050, a sustainable bioeconomy is seen as a core component of the European Green Deal

EU policy is supporting the expansion of bio-based climate solutions that keep fossil carbon in the ground and help meet the challenge of decarbonising the remaining 70 per cent of the world’s economy - including infrastructure, industry and transportation - by replacing fossil-based resources with biological ones.

But as forest-strategy rapporteur Petri Sarvamaa told the European Parliament last autumn, “The enhancement of biodiversity, the fight against climate change and the transitions to a circular bioeconomy and to a fossil-free society will never be possible without multifunctional, healthy and sustainably managed forests.”

Forests at the centre

Forests and the forest-based sector are the foundation of the bioeconomy. Absorbing about 10 per cent of EU emissions annually, European forests can provide climate benefits that go beyond storing carbon on the landscape by substituting wood for GHG-intensive raw materials, products and energy sources. In fact, research by a group of European academics concluded that, if managed to their full potential, Europe’s forests could help to mitigate the EU’s carbon emissions up to 20 per cent by 2050. “A very significant impact with many synergies can be achieved, provided the effort is made,” they concluded.

Much of this potential is due to scientific and engineering advances that have broadened how forest resources can be used to decarbonise industries ranging from construction and plastics to chemicals and textiles. 

For example, the use in the building industry of “mass timber” — engineered wood products that are as robust as their concrete and steel counterparts — provides a low-carbon alternative that can reduce GHG emissions in a typical mid-rise commercial building by 26 per cent.

Forests and the forest-based sector will be an essential part of Europe’s transition to a modern, climate-neutral, resource-efficient and most importantly, competitive economy

Mass timber might just change the face of construction in Europe, allowing cities to expand with less environmental impact. In Vienna, a whole new city quarter has been constructed using cross laminated timber (CLT), a super-strong form of compressed timber; its crowning feature is an 84-metre high-rise tower, one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.

 Forest-based textiles such as viscose and lyocell from sustainably managed sources are increasingly being used to lower the carbon footprint of petroleum-based fabrics used by the fashion industry, which is estimated to consume around 342m barrels of oil each year. A meta-analysis found that for every kilogram of carbon generated from oil-based textiles, 2.8 kilograms could be saved by replacing them with their forest-based equivalents.

Sustainable bioenergy is another important part of the bioeconomy, providing the EU with its largest source of renewable energy. Bioenergy can reduce carbon emissions by up to 85 per cent for electricity generation on a lifecycle basis compared to coal, and also supplies commercial as well as domestic heat for more than 50m European households.

Policy built on proven success

Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) is a practice deployed by the forestry sector that is fundamental to scaling up the bioeconomy within safe ecological boundaries by managing forests in a way that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity and potential to fulfil relevant ecological, economic and social functions. 

National forest inventory data suggests SFM is working. The latest Forest Europe report on the state of Europe’s forests gives clear indicators: European forest area has increased by nine per cent over the last 30 years; the area of forests designated for biodiversity conservation has increased by 65 per cent in 20 years; and the volume of wood and the weight of carbon stored in European forests has grown by 50 per cent over the last 30 years. 

The EU is to be commended for its efforts to stop deforestation and forest degradation in certain regions where SFM practices are not yet in place. However, policy debates often misleadingly conflate the plight of global forests with the situation of EU forests. Each year around 13m hectares are deforested worldwide, but 96 per cent of this occurs in tropical regions affected by poor property rights, inefficient timber harvesting and land use change, and where carbon emissions are not offset by regrowth. 

While European forests have experienced stress and damage, this is largely because of climate change itself, which is making them more vulnerable to insect outbreaks and natural disturbances such as fire and windstorms. SFM can safeguard forests against these threats by promoting adaptation and resilience.

As the EU continues work on several legislative matters relating to the bioeconomy — including its new biodiversity and forest strategies and a review of the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) — it is important that these initiatives recognise and build on the contributions of SFM.

“Forests and the forest-based sector will be an essential part of Europe’s transition to a modern, climate-neutral, resource-efficient and most importantly competitive economy,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries at a recent event discussing bioeconomy and the Green Deal. Forthcoming policy initiatives must properly reflect the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainability to enable forests and the forest sector to fulfill this role.

Reducing emissions from 51bn tons per year to net zero will require remaking large portions of our fossil-based economy. The forest bioeconomy offers a path forward for a transition that equally respects and strengthens our forests, their biodiversity and the communities they sustain.

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