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The global forest sector & COVID-19

09.06.2020

The global forest sector & COVID-19

On May 27, the European Organisation of the Sawmill Industry has attended the webinar organised by Forest Products and Statistics Team in association with the Advisory Committee on Sustainable Forest-based Industries of the FAO.

Distinguished speakers emphasized that the global forest sector was heavily affected by the pandemic but is showing resilience. Many forest-based products are essential to keep vital supply chains ticking.

Countries have used different approaches when it comes to forestry during the pandemic: Australia, and the United States deemed forestry an essential activity, while in New Zealand there was a shutdown of one month for the industry, which is now operating again. In South East Asian countries there were also shutdowns. Both in the US and in Australia construction markets might take a bit longer than expected to recover with a contraction set to be recorded also in H1 2020. Chinese demand for softwood timber is now rebounding.

Some trends which were apparent before the pandemic became even more evident, such as the printing and writing paper decline and the tissue and packaging sector development.

Overall, the pandemic seems to have had little impact on forestry investments: in severe market disruptions trees continue to grow and accumulate in value even without maintaining rate of harvest.

Some governments have made it clear that they intend to stick to green goals such as carbon neutrality (net zero emissions) by 2050. So, the forest sector is set to play a key role in the coming decades as demand for sustainable, re-usable, recyclable and renewable materials will be rising. Carbon stock changes in investments and new sophisticated sustainability reports are set to become more important as well as pre-fabricated and mass timber construction. Wood fibre based packaging and hygiene products will continue to grow relative to declining traditional paper markets.

In such a scenario, data is becoming more and more important. Key questions in the coming years will be:

-          What is the demand outlook for wood, wood fibre, and woody biomass if we go through a circular bioeconomy transition?

-          What is the potential future supply of wood, wood fibre and woody biomass if bioeconomy demand rises? Where can this wood fibre be gown sustainably?

Also, it is important that wood for energy is not obtained from larger, high-value trees that instead could be used for longer-lived products. This wood can come from low-value wood that is a by-product of a sawmill operation or a planned traditional timber harvest: these by-products can be delivered directly  from the forest a stops, limbs, thinnings and/or low-value smaller trees, or they can be delivered as secondary residues, like sawdust and shavings from industrial processing.

For the future of the sector, it is instrumental that science and society realize that a good and healthy forest is one which has also economic purposes. There are some scientists that are of the view that trees are better left in the forest, but we need to stick to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest CO2 stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber fiber, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest mitigation benefit).

Finally, the speakers reflected on immaterial factors that might be beneficial for the forest sector: the pandemic seems not to have changed the green push from society, actually it seems to have further accelerated it and the forest sector is well placed to deliver on this societal pressure. It will be key to balance carbon storage and product extraction.

Cooperation among all stakeholders involved in the sector is crucial as well as effective communication to the public.