We need to bridge the timber gap - Stuart Goodall

In ‘normal’ times, we would have been counting down to COP26 in Glasgow - and considering the amazing opportunities presented by this environmental super-summit to put Scotland's climate change ambitions on the international map.

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 1:54 pm
Short Rotation Forestry can support rural economies, help diversify farm incomes and tackle climate change
Short Rotation Forestry can support rural economies, help diversify farm incomes and tackle climate change

In ‘normal’ times, we would have been counting down to COP26 in Glasgow - and considering the amazing opportunities presented by this environmental super-summit to put Scotland's climate change ambitions on the international map.

Now, Covid-19 has pushed the summit back into late 2021, with the event likely to be on a smaller scale than initially planned.

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However, it's vital that Scotland doesn’t also scale back its ambition to tackle the climate emergency. So far it has been a global leader, with a 2045 Net Zero target, ahead of the 2050 target in the rest of the UK.

Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood

Scotland is also leading in tree planting, a key area in removing atmospheric carbon and delivering that net-zero ambition. In fact, just weeks ago, the Scottish Government increased its planting targets, from 15,000 to 18,000 hectares of new woodland each year by 2025.

The commitment to use Scottish wood was also increased by nearly a fifth. Locking up carbon and displacing ‘high-energy’ materials like concrete and steel is another key part of the sector’s contribution to the fight against carbon.

While this is excellent news, there are a couple of elephants in the [wood-panelled] room.

COP26 is about collective international action and it’s a stark fact that the UK still imports more than 80 per cent of the wood it uses.

With WWF estimating that global wood consumption will triple by 2050, we need to ensure we don’t add to pressure on fragile global forests overseas or facilitate illegal logging. An investigation by green charity Earthsight revealed up to 40% of wood sold to the European Union from Ukraine, to make everything from furniture to garden fences, was illegally cut.

While the UK is a global leader in tackling illegal logging, Confor is urging the UK to follow the Scottish Government’s lead and ‘Think Global, Plant Local’ to take more responsibility for producing the timber we use.

The development of an England Tree Strategy presents an opportunity to address this, and Confor has asked the UK Government to work with industry on a joined-up approach to deliver more tree planting, increased management of existing forests and greater use of home-grown wood.

All three are needed, but we must go further to tackle the second elephant in the room, the 'timber gap', as the whole of the UK, including Scotland, pays the price for not planting trees in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite increased planting in recent years, a shortfall of wood is forecast in the late 2030s and 2040s. Failing to tackle this will harm forestry and wood’s role as a vital rural employer (25,000+ jobs in Scotland) and its leadership role in tackling climate change.

One possible solution is Short Rotation Forestry (SRF), where faster-growing trees are planted and harvested in eight-20 years, rather than 30-plus years, depending on species.

Unlike ‘conventional’ forestry, SRF need not be a permanent land-use. This, plus its shorter rotation length, means it could be attractive to farmers, including tenant farmers, as a means to develop additional income streams and contribute to decarbonising agriculture.

A range of species can be grown as SRF, from conifers including Sitka spruce, Grand fir, Noble fir, Douglas fir, Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock, to broadleaf species like Birch, Aspen, Poplar, Alder, Lime and Sycamore.

The wood fibre produced can be harvested flexibly to meet market demand and sold into a range of markets, such as factories like Norbord (based in Cowie, Stirlingshire and Inverness), which makes board for flooring and fitted units for our kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

There is also great potential in the bioeconomy market, with wood fibre an environmentally sustainable replacement for chemicals, textiles and many other products. SRF can also provide wood fibre for the biomass market.

As we look towards COP26 next year, we should challenge the rest of the UK to follow Scotland’s lead in tree planting and using more wood, and in exploring solutions like SRF that can support rural economies, help diversify farm incomes and tackle climate change.

In 2021, Scotland can lead the UK in flexible, common-sense partnerships building a sustainable economic future, while continuing to support that wider environmental ambition - to be net-zero by 2045. It’s all about Thinking Global, Planting Local.

Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood

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