Global timber demand is set to quadruple in the next twenty years. A new study, however, raises concerns about meeting this demand. The study published in Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research suggests a worrying trend. The potential for increased wood harvesting from European forests may not meet expectations. This is unless significant investments are made in afforestation and forest management.
The study, spearheaded by Bas Lerink from the Wageningen University & Research Centre, delved into the theoretical and practical potential of additional wood harvest in Europe. “Every year, much more wood grows in Europe than we harvest. The difference between increment and harvest is called the theoretical potential for additional wood harvest,” Lerink explains. His research shows this theoretical potential is around 250 million cubic meters annually.
However, he quickly added, “But only a part of it will be realistic. It is better not to harvest in some forests for several reasons. To prevent soil erosion or to protect biodiversity, for example. As a result, this theoretical potential will never be achieved.”
Realistic increase in wood harvest
To establish a more attainable potential for wood harvesting, Lerink and his team adopted a two-pronged strategy. Initially, they assessed national forest strategies and other policy documents to ascertain each country’s ambitions to increase wood harvest over the next 10–20 years.
“Based on this, the researchers determined each country’s ambition to increase their wood harvest in the near future (10–20 years) on a current total harvest of approximately 546 million m3. In total, this will lead to a realistic potential of 90 million m3 per year for the EU and the United Kingdom.”
Furthermore, they utilized the EFISCEN Space forest resource model to develop future wood harvest projections in ten model regions. “This has shown that the realistic potential for additional wood harvest is much smaller than the literature review suggested, namely half, about 40 million m3. National forest strategies seem to overestimate harvesting possibilities.”
The state of European forests
In addition to the numerical analysis, the study also underscored concerns about the current state of European forests. Climate change has amplified natural disturbances such as fires, diseases, and pests, leading to a decline in CO2 sequestration in some countries. Despite these challenges, the study pointed out that there is more wood in European forests now than at any other time since the Second World War.
“A small increase in wood harvest (by the aforementioned 40 million m3 per year) still seems to be realistic,” Lerink said. “But in the long term, a larger wood harvest will only be feasible if forest restoration, afforestation, and forest management improvements are already started now.”
His co-author, Gert-Jan Nabuurs, highlighted the importance of these measures for Europe’s self-sufficiency. “These are important for Europe to become more self-sufficient. Education cooperation between forest owners and, forest industry, and governments will be necessary. This will make the EU less dependent on other continents and also contribute to sustainable forest management with enhanced biodiversity in a bio-economy.”