“The European forest-based sector is clearly becoming more diversified, interlinked, and cross-sectorial. It is increasingly affected by issues such as climate change impacts and policies, energy policies, advances in new technologies, the increasing role of services, and trends towards low carbon bioeconomy. Furthermore, the forest sector is becoming more integrated with other industrial sectors such as construction, energy, chemicals and textile industries. The concepts of ‘forest-based sector’ and ‘forest-based bioeconomy’ are beginning to replace the conventional and a more limited concept of ‘forest sector’.” To say this – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Marc Palahí, director of EFI, the European Forest Institute. With him we talk about the forest-based economy and its connection with the bioeconomy.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Mr Palahí, first of all could you explain us what is EFI?
The European Forest Institute – EFI – is an international organisation established by European States. It generates and connects forest-related knowledge to support policy-making and decision-taking regarding interconnected societal challenges like climate change, energy security, biodiversity loss but also the opportunities offer the bioeconomy.
What is exactly the forest-based economy?
The term forest-based economy is not commonly used, but let me take the challenge. I would say that the forest-based economy encompasses the management and conservation of our forests, for the provision of ecosystem services and the production and conversion of forest-based resources (wood and non-wood resources) into food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy.
And what is its connection with the bioeconomy?
“Forestry is at the heart of Europe’s Bioeconomy” said Commisioner Phil Hogan when we met this month in Brussels to discuss our Institute’s role in realizing the forest-based bioeconomy. I think that it is a very good way to express the fact that forests, being the most important green infrastructure of our continent (covering 40% of our land), provide crucial ecosystem services to society. This includes protecting key resources like water, soil and biodiversity, and providing renewable resources (wood and non-wood products) that are transformed into biobased products and bioenergy. This dual role makes our forests the most important natural capital for building a sustainable bioeconomy where economic, social and environmental aspects are properly balanced.
Currently, the forest-based sector represents more than 20 percent of the EU’s bioeconomy’s turnover. Employment and wood-based energy represents around 50% of all renewable energy in the EU. But its potential contribution to the bioeconomy is higher as everything that is made of oil can be made of wood. This should not be a surprise as in the Roman times the word for wood and for material was the same: materia.
The European forest-based sector is clearly becoming more diversified, interlinked, and cross-sectorial. It is increasingly affected by issues such as climate change impacts and policies, energy policies, advances in new technologies, the increasing role of services, and trends towards low carbon bioeconomy. Furthermore, the forest sector is becoming more integrated with other industrial sectors such as construction, energy, chemicals and textile industries. The concepts of ‘forest-based sector’ and ‘forest-based bioeconomy’ are beginning to replace the conventional and a more limited concept of ‘forest sector’.
The availability of biomass is one of the most relevant issues to the development of the bioeconomy in Europe. What is the contribution of forests on the sustainable supply of biomass?
Forests cover around 160 million ha, and forest area has increased by 7% since 1990. Our forests are predominantly managed and around 75% of the annual increment is harvested, which indicates that there could be room to increase wood biomass utilization to support the developing bioeconomy. The EU is already one of the main producers of roundwood in the world with 442 million m3 in 2014. Wood biomass production represents approximately 25% of the total biomass supply in the EU. It is important to remark that wood biomass is the prime source of biomass that is not competing with food and feed uses. Moreover, European forests are sustainably managed as documented by regular monitoring under the Forest Europe process, including significant shares of forests certified according the two main certification systems: FSC and PEFC.
Looking to the future, several assessments estimated that there will be growing demand for EU forest biomass due to increases in the production of wood-based energy along with other forest-based products. This view is supported by the fact that we expect a growing world population and an expanding middle class. But in my view more accurate assessments, which take into account international trade, market dynamics, and also emerging technological advances related to the efficiency of biomass transformation are needed. In addition, we also need to improve our understanding of the limits of sustainable intensification – how much more biomass can we mobilize without compromising key ecosystems services and the ecological resilience of our forests.
In a context of increasing pressure on biomass resources, due to a fast increase of needs for renewable energy on the one hand and a growing demand for forest products and biomaterials on the other, the concept of “cascade use of biomass” is being discussed both by policy makers and stakeholders. It is said that the cascading use of biomass, prioritizing material use before energy use is preferable as a climate change mitigation measure as the carbon stays stored in the material for a longer term and it substitutes non-renewable materials and fossil energy twice. In principle the cascading use is also more resource efficient and economically beneficent. From your point of view, is cascading use of biomass a superior concept in the context of a sustainable bioeconomy?
In my view, the cascading principle makes sense as a general guideline. It supports resource efficiency by recycling waste and residues and transforming them into materials as many times as possible. Ideally, priority should be given to high value added products. But I also think that cascade use should not be followed slavishly because there might be some cases when some of the basic arguments behind do not necessarily hold. Furthermore, the added value from different products is evolving dynamically and bioenergy is not a homogenous process or product, which results in different implications for employment and the environment.
What are the drivers or barriers to cascade use?
EFI recently organized a conference where the cascade use of biomass was discussed between scientists, industry and policy makers. A driver for cascade use is the increasing competition for biomass between different sectors. With new technologies becoming available e.g. to sort and clean demolition wood, the material use sector might be able to access comparably cheap resources. However, the cleaning process is still costly and waste wood collection is poorly organized in many countries. Another, and maybe more significant barrier to cascade use is the payment of subsidies for bioenergy. Several countries have established incentives which make cascade use options economically less attractive than the direct energy conversion of discarded wood products.
Do we need additional rules and regulations in Europe?
The general opinion at the conference was that policy regulations favoring cascade use would not be desirable. They were perceived as too complicated and bringing the risk of new market distortions. The dominant opinion was that energy subsidies should be questioned and possibly removed. Instead of feed-in tariffs and similar market incentives, policy support should rather focus on the mobilization of biomass as this would help all biomass-based sectors.
So, in my view what is more important than a policy focus on cascade use is to develop a coherent bioeconomy policy framework which is based on the understanding of the values and trade-offs of different products and that addresses existing regulatory and market failures. More coordination among policies, their objectives and targets are also a necessity as in the long-term the competition for biomass and land will increase.
A coherent bioeconomy policy framework will offer a level playing field for the different uses of biomass. Until now only bioenergy have enjoyed a privileged position. It is also important to provide a long-term predictable framework with appropriate incentives (e.g., carbon prize) to stimulate other sectors to become part of the bioeconomy.
In a few days in Paris will start the COP21 Conference. How can European forests contribute to climate policy targets?
EFI, under the coordination of prof. Gert-Jan Nabuurs from Wageningen University, has just produced a scientific assessment on the role of forests in the post-2020 climate targets and this work will be launched on 1 December during COP21. Our forests and the forest sector play a significant role in the EU greenhouse gas balance. It is estimated that our forests and the forest sector produce an overall climate mitigation impact equivalent to 13% of the total EU emissions. However, the study emphasizes that there is still room to increase the mitigation potential of our forests and the forest sector. It is estimated that with appropriate incentives a combined additional mitigation effect equivalent to 9% of the current EU CO2 emissions could be realized by 2030. I invite you to our COP21 event in Paris to discuss with us such estimates and their policy implications!