Evaluating The Sustainability Of EU Timber Consumption Trends

The growing demand for wood to meet EU renewable energy targets has increasingly come under scrutiny for potentially increasing EU import dependence and inducing land use change abroad. A research is conducted to look at future trends to assess how current EU policy may impact forests at an EU and global scale. By Meghan O’Brien and Stefan Bringezu, University of Kassel

The EU Directive on the Promotion and the Use of Energy from Renewable Sources (RES Directive) mandates that Member States set legally binding targets for increasing the share of renewables in gross final consumption. 

The EU target is 20 percent renewables by 2020. In 2012, the renewable share of energy comprised around 14 percent, with wood contributing to more than 40 percent of renewable energy consumption in the EU-27. The RES Directive is expected to significantly increase the demand for fuelwood in the EU. 

However, such a substantial growth in timber consumption has increasingly come under scrutiny for potentially increasing environmental pressures domestically and abroad with harmful effects on e.g., the climate and biodiversity.

Similar findings have been made at the EU level. A report from the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission assessed the current practice of carbon accounting for forest bioenergy. 

It argues that: “The assumption of biogenic carbon neutrality is not valid under policy relevant time horizons (in particular for dedicated harvest of stemwood for bioenergy only) if carbon stock changes in the forest are not accounted for”. 

The study recognizes that the classification of ‘carbon neutrality’ increases the attractiveness of using timber for renewable energy generation, and notes that stemwood harvesting for bioenergy purposes is expected to grow in the future. 

It also argues that a decrease in emissions due to removal of forest residues, thinning and salvage logging is more achievable in the short term, especially if the counterfactual scenario would be to burn the residues on the roadside. This feedstock is expected to provide most of the additional increment of biomass for bioenergy by 2020 according to that study.

However, the sustainable potential of forest residues estimated by the literature varies. At a global level more modest, yet realistic, estimates relate to around four exajoule (EJ) to six EJ (440 cubic mm to 660 cubic mm). 

This could cover only around one percent of current global primary energy demand, but would raise total harvest supply volume by around 11 percent to 16 percent. 

But these values seem relatively high in comparison to the EU, where sustainable residue removal is estimated to increase the supply capacity of EU forests by around 10 percent, or even only five percent in one scenario with stricter environmental regulations. 

Even minor increases in harvesting and removing residues may cause major nutrient losses. Thus, more research is urgently needed on the sustainable potential of residue removal—including stumps and roots—for different types of forests. 


Condition Of Global Timber Consumption

There were two key studies reviewing and assessing for forecasting future timber demand at the global level. 

The first study uses the Global Forest Products Model (GFPM) to make projections about the future consumption of forest products as well as the impact on the forest area and forest stock until 2060. 

The GFPM is a dynamic economic model of 14 forestry commodity groups in the world economy linked to forest stock on a changing forest area according to the Kuznets curve. 

It calculates the final demand and raw materials supply in world equilibrium according to econometric equations, with the price elasticity of supply of fuelwood and industrial roundwood the same in all countries except the US. 

IPCC scenarios shown that lower income and higher population growth with times growth in biofuel demand and medium projections to set the context for projecting timber demand. 

It should be noted that strong assumptions and critical uncertainties warrant applying due caution in interpreting these, as well as all scenarios presented.

The second study is from the FAO and forecasts global timber demand for world regions until 2030. It uses, for example, forest sector outlook studies to present trends in different regions of the world. At the aggregated global level, FAO derives the demand for industrial roundwood from expected growth in end products (sawnwood, wood-based panels and paper and paperboard). 

It forecasts a more than doubling in demand for wood-based panels and paper and paperboard between 2005 and 2030 and a 50 percent increase in the demand for sawnwood. 

In particular, demand in Asia is expected to increase significantly. The report assumes that recycled materials and wood residues will comprise a growing share of supply for these end products in 2030 (50 percent, up from 30 percent in 2005) in particular because of expected rates of paper recycling in the future, lowering the demand for primary timber. 

While total wood and recycled fibre demand for products is projected to almost double, the demand for industrial roundwood is expected to increase by around 40 percent between 2005 and 2030. 


Future Timber Demands Prediction In EU

The EUWood project used the econometric modeling projections produced by Jonsson and the energy demands presented by Steierer to estimate the wood resource balance (WRB) for the EU-27 in 2010, 2020 and 2030. 

The purpose of a WRB is to compare actual and potential supply with demand for a certain country or group of countries to indicate possible discrepancies (gaps) and to monitor the woody biomass balance for a given year. 

Overall, results showed that potential demand would overtake potential supply between 2015 and 2020 in the scenario with medium mobilization, in particular due to the rising demand for fuelwood. 

According to the study, “even if all measures for increased wood mobilisation are implemented, wood industry demand and renewable energy targets can hardly be satisfied from domestic sources in 2020”. Around 70 percent of the total supply estimated for 2010 is expected to come from the forest, whereas 30 percent from trees outside the forest and other sources.

The European Forest Sector Outlook Study (EFSOS) II also projects material and energetic demand developments to forecast overall developments in timber and forest product supply and demand in the UNECE region (with the exception of North America, the Caucasus and central Asia, Israel and Russia) between 2010 and 2020 to 2030. 

The WRB is also at the core of the study with demand derived from econometric analysis, extrapolation and policy targets and potential wood supply for four scenarios: reference, maximizing biomass carbon, giving priority to biodiversity, and promoting wood energy (to meet EU renewable energy targets). 

The IPCC scenarios also set it into its context. The reference scenario for materials is based on the Global Forest Sector Model (a partial equilibrium model focusing on forest products) and the reference scenario for energy is based on an extrapolation of the historical fuelwood consumption rate (estimated at 1.5 percent per year). This is significantly below both the amount forecasted to meet renewable energy targets in the EU. 

In the reference scenario, demand for wood is about 20 percent higher in 2030 than in 2010, with slower growth from the forest products industry and faster growth for energy. 

In the scenario in which the EU meets its energy targets, total demand would increase to around 1200 cubic mm with wood demand for energy more than doubling in comparison to 2010, and comprising around 60 percent of total demand in 2030. 

In the reference scenario, an increase in exports is expected (43 cubic mm), whereas the EU would become a net importer in the energy scenario. It should be noted that the gap between expected supply and demand increases in all future scenarios. In particular, a high gap of 162 cubic mm is expected in the biodiversity scenario. This additional demand would probably have to be met by increased imports.


Assessment On EU Timber Consumption Pattern

Estimating future consumption of primary timber is more challenging for the EU than for the world. At the regional level, annual demand is no longer equivalent to annual extraction due to trade, and the challenge is thus distinguishing regional recycling flows from primary flows. 

While a number of studies have forecasted EU demand for timber products, the challenge for this study is estimating how much of this demand is expected to be met by primary timber from the forest (woody biomass).

In order to estimate total primary raw wood demand in the EU, we forecast the magnitude of expected change.  The total primary raw timber consumption of the EU-27 was estimated to be 473 cubic mm o.b. in 2010. 

This is based on economy-wide material flows analysis assessing both timber flows (accounting for trade of around 100 commodities, imports-exports) and domestic removals (harvest within the EU) using standard conversion values to derive primary raw timber volumes. 

Besides, in the EUWood project total demand for solid wood equivalents grows from around 800 cubic mm in 2010 to 1100 cubic mm in 2020 and 1370 cubic mm in 2030 in the IPCC A1 scenario for products and a scenario meeting renewable energy targets for energy. 

This means that demand grows by 37 percent between 2010 and 2020 and by 71 percent between 2010 and 2030. This percent change was applied to the total primary consumption estimated for the EU-27 in 2010. It should be noted that the scenarios from EFSOS II were modified based on the country data to depict the results of the four scenarios for the EU-27 (without Malta and Romania).

Meeting around a 40 percent share of renewable energy targets in the EU with timber in 2020 and beyond would increase pressure on global land use with potential impacts on climate change and biodiversity. 

Results show that meeting renewable energy targets would cause total EU primary timber demand between 2010 and 2030 to increase by around 55 to 70 percent (while a total increase of 20 percent could be expected in the moderate growth scenario without meeting renewable targets). 

This increase implies that the EU would exceed its own sustainable supply capacity between 2024 and 2030, potentially making the EU import dependent (to maintain sustainable forest management practices ‘at home’). 

In 2030, total EU consumption would be just over to up to around 15 percent higher than the upper threshold of the EU reference value range and around 160 to 200 percent more than the upper threshold of the global reference value range. 

It would thus contribute to the global overshoot of a safe operating space for forest use calculated in the global high growth scenarios. Specifically, two of the global scenarios already showed an overshoot of around 30 to 65 percent of the upper sustainable supply boundary, making an import strategy particularly questionable. 

Somewhat lower targets for energy wood as well as a slowdown in product demand growth could ease pressures and make it possible for the EU moderate demand growth scenario to stay within a territorial EU sustainable supply range.

This would imply the need for policies that promote sustainable harvesting and timber mobilization within the EU to meet those demands, in order to mitigate the risks associated with shifting production and harvesting abroad. 

However, such a moderate growth scenario would still be above the global reference value range, raising the question of which reference value range is appropriate for the EU to use as an orientation.

The result also presented a culmination of findings in a ‘series’ of articles. In sum, they point to the need for developing a systemic monitoring of the forest and forest-based sectors including an accounting of timber flows underlined by indicators (like the forest footprint) and sustainability benchmarks (like reference values—and eventually targets—for sustainable supply capacities from forests at different spatial dimensions). 

This research has highlighted the importance of taking the future perspective into consideration in order to develop smart policies for both timber and forest use in keeping with sustainability considerations. 

In addition, as regards the EU demand scenarios, strengthened methods are needed to account for primary timber consumption. Most literature sources include projections for consumption based on demand, regardless of whether this expected demand level shall come from primary raw timber or recycling flows. 

In order to make comparisons to the forest and the sustainable supply capacity, primary flows are needed, including for imports and exports, making also global trends regarding trade of re-used wood products an area for future research. 



The findings of this research about evaluation on timber consumption in EU support the literature pointing to potentially exacerbated environmental, as well as social, problems associated with rapidly and significantly rising demands for timber. 

In particular, it has shown that the growing use of timber for energy purposes in the EU imposes the risk of significantly exceeding the estimated ‘fair shares’ of safe operating space for global timber consumption. 

This aims to point to a high risk of problem shifting and the urgent need for better data, improved accounting and strengthened monitoring across multiple scales of analysis and over time. 

For policy makers, this implies the need to increase monitoring efforts. There is also an urgent need to shift toward new forms of governance that recognize ecological limits and aim to regulate within them. 

To this end, a safe operating space for forest use should be defined in a more robust manner—with research needed to strengthen the data basis as well as to investigate the socio-political legitimacy of the safe operating space concept towards targets in the future. 

Policy makers may continue to increase support for innovation in sustainable forest management, across value chains and in business model development (such as towards re-use, recycling and cascades) in order to promote both sustainable production and consumption practices in a way that supports economic competitiveness and respects ecological limits.


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