Save the planet, become a bamboo hugger
THE DARK SIDE OF THE TIMBER: environmental destruction, deforestation, and illegal logging
Timber is considered a sustainable and environmentally friendly building material and a major source of bio-fuel. However, there is a dark side to timber that many people are unaware of. In recent years, the availability of timber has declined sharply, while the demand for it has only increased. Deforestation, environmental destruction, and illegal logging are all major problems in the timber industry.
In this blog post, we will explore the dark side of timber and discuss the negative impacts it has on our environment, and propose bamboo as a viable complimentary alternative.
Hiding in plain sight
The global pandemic of 2020-2021 has had far-reaching consequences that have been felt in many industries and sectors, including the timber trades. A decrease in demand, travel restrictions, and border closures all caused a slowdown or suspension in exports of lumber. Unfortunately the pandemic increased conditions that are conducive to illegal logging activities and in some instances, travel restrictions and pandemic-related lockdowns forced governments to enforce regulations that prevented loggers from entering protected habitats or harvesting timber. Communities with limited economic opportunities lost their primary income streams and turned to illegal logging to survive. This pandemic-induced surge in illegal logging activities provided an impetus for a collective effort towards bamboo plantations to work in conjunction with traditional timber plantations.
As the most profitable natural resource crime on the planet and the third most profitable transnational crime behind counterfeiting and drug trafficking, illegal logging is an attractive financial prospect for criminals and those left financially destitute because of the pandemic or other geo-political factors.
Generating between $52 and $157 billion dollars annually, the illegal timber industry attracts all sorts of criminal organisations willing to destroy any obstacle standing in the way of profit. One possible solution to this issue is the enforcement of stricter laws around illegal logging, and providing better access to alternative materials such as bamboo.
Governments around the world have been looking for alternate sources of timber, and diversifying into bamboo production is one seriously considered option.
Bamboo grows five times faster than common softwoods and 16 times faster than hardwoods; absorbs 5 times more carbon and is a grass, so it self regenerates.
The domino effect
International sanctions imposed on Russia over their invasion of Ukraine have curbed supplies of timber from Russia, the world’s largest exporter of softwood timber, and Belarus and the war has severly hampered production in Ukraine [Financial Times, June 2022]. These three countries accounted for a quarter of the worldwide timber trade in 2021, so what happens when those exports are curtailed?
Timber producing and exporting nations take up the shortfall, loosening some environmental protections to increase production!
Estonia, Finland and the US are all seeking to increase logging volumes.
Logging redwood trees, California, USA
The ongoing conflict with Russia, since 2014, has drastically changed Ukraine’s logging practices. Twenty percent of Ukraine’s protected areas and 3 million hectares of forests have been affected by war in a country where eight nature reserves and 10 national parks remain under the control of Russian troops. [3 million Hectares of Forests in Ukraine Affected by War, World Wildlife Fund Estimates]
Also big forest areas are now destroyed in Ukraine as they were shelled and mined.
[Mykolaiv, Ukraine, forest burning because of the shelling, August 2022]
The area of Ukraine under Ukrainian control, saw a decrease in logging quotas, however there has been massive destruction of Ukraine’s forests by illegal timber harvesting and Ukraine is now faced with a new and critical task – to preserve the existing forests while avoiding further destruction. To address this issue, Ukraine turned to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) who evaluated Ukraine’s forestry practices and taught them about sustainable forest management, including logging quotas and collaboration between stakeholders. Ukraine reduced the size of annual wood harvests and began requiring additional due diligence by third party firms monitoring the forestry industry. In March 2020, Ukraine had around 40% of the total forest land, mostly state owned, certified to FSC standards, making it possible for them to trade their timber abroad.
However, acceptance of this new methodology is slow and forest degradation due to unsustainable forest management still occurs. “Every year, Ukraine loses natural forests, which are then replaced by artificial plantings vulnerable to climate change and poor in terms of biodiversity. The reason for this is outdated approaches to forest management based on the Soviet practice of “mastering nature”. The problem is further exacerbated by illegal logging by the forest managers themselves.”[War’s invisible consequences for Ukrainian forests, Nov 2022]
Less than 320,000 ha of old-growth forests are now thought to remain in Central and Eastern Europe, with 100,000 of those located in Ukraine. Old-growth forests are home to 9 out of 10 land flora and fauna species.
[4750 Hectares of Old-Growth Ukrainian Forest Receive the Highest Level of Protection, September 2020]
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has not helped. Yuriy Bolohovets (Minister of Environmental Protection of Ukraine Ruslan Strilets and Chairman of the State Forest Agency) announced in Spring 2022 the intention to increase the previous year’s logging quotas by 150% and the intention to supply everyone with firewood for winter.
Elected deputies lifted a regulation that prohibits logging in protected and other forests between April 1 to June 15, when many species reproduce.
Foresters are logging not only FSC pine and spruce forests but also the remains of the most valuable old natural forests in Ukraine, under the guise of “providing firewood for residents” and people are independently stockpiling wood for winter, knowing Russian troops are deliberately targetting the Ukrainian energy system.
Air Quality and Renewable Energy
According to WHO, 4.2 million deaths occur worldwide every year as a result of pollution. In 2021 Estonia was ranked as having the 10th cleanest air in the world, while many other European cities’ air quality is regularly rated “poor” (WHO).
Estonia is famous for its forests with over 50% of its land mass covered in trees. A rarity in Europe where most countries have intensively used the land for centuries and retain only rare areas of old forest.
But Estonia may soon be famous for the destruction of their forests.
According to Global Forest Watch, from 2016 to 2020, Estonia lost between 36,000 and 46,000 hectares of tree cover each year. Between 2009 and 2018 logging licences were issued without appropriate impact accessments, leading to the European Commission starting an infringement procedure and the Estonian Enivornmental Board suspending logging in 2022 in some areas for 28 months.
Europe is in an urgent energy crisis. Russian gas supplies have been cut by more than 80% (Dec 2022) and prices of electricity and gas have surged as much as 15-fold. Subsidies to encourage wood burning, introduced over a decade ago as an incentive to move away from coal and gas have led to a booming market, where Europe’s largest renewable energy source is now timber, far ahead of wind and solar.
Across Central Europe, companies are clear-cutting forests and grinding up centuries-old trees in the name of renewable energy. Pellets are shipped across Western Europe, helping countries reach their renewable-power commitments. None of this is illegal, in fact it is encouraged by green-energy subsidies, but why not substitute bamboo for timber?
[Global Forest Watch]
Forests in Finland and Estonia were once seen as key assets for reducing carbon from the air, but they are now the source of so much logging that government scients consider them carbon emitters and burning wood releases more carbon dioxide than would have been emitted from energy from fossil fuels.
A December 2020 report found that Estonia is unable to meet its biodiversity targets because of an overall increase in harvesting which is being fuelled by demand for bioenergy from the Netherlands and Denmark. According to the study’s co-author, Uku Lillevali, “The increasing pressure to cut down trees in protected areas in Estonia is largely due to international demand for woody biomass and bioenergy. As long as countries can meet their renewable energy targets by burning timber that comes directly from forests, precious habitats will be destroyed in the name of misguided climate change policies.”
65% of Estonia’s wood exports are burned to heat Denmark and 18% of their wood pellet production goes to the Netherlands, two countries that rely on wood burning to meet their renewable energy targets, under the Renewable Energy Directive.
But reports show bamboo pellets exhibit higher combustion rates and heat release rates than timber pellets. So why aren’t we planting and harvesting bamboo to alleviate Europe’s bio fuel energy crisis?
In Finland more than 75% of the country is covered with forest but only 6% are protected. In 2021, 12% more industrial roundwood was removed from Finnish forests than the previous year and there is considerable pressure to increase the volume due to demand rising from a new bioproduct mill that is opening in Kemi, Western Lapland and the discontinuation of imports from Russia. From 2013 to 2021, Finland lost 100% of natural tree forests and between 2001 and 2021 saw a 19% decrease in total tree coverage [Global Forest Watch]. Of all the logging, almost half is used for pulp mills to produce paper. An additional 9% is used for bioenergy for private homes and 5% goes to heat and power plants. Bamboo fiber is the best fiber material for papermaking after softwood fiber, so why aren’t we planting and harvesting bamboo to supplement paper production?
Syke (Finnish Environment Institute) challenged the perception that forest use is beneficial for the climate because wood products store carbon and replace emission-intensive fossil fuels, estimating that it would take a minimum of 150 years for existing wood fuels and products to offset the loss of carbon sinks caused by logging.
A wolf in the woods
In Hungary, the government waived conservation rules in November 2022 to allow increased logging in old-growth forests. Katalin Rodics, biodiversity campaigner with Greenpeace Hungary, says logging protected forests to guarantee energy security is “crazy” and “very, very destructive” [Politico, Oct 22] and will make it harder to reach climate tagets.
In Romania, where more than half the population already heats their homes with wood, the government has capped the price of firewood to keep energy bills low – a measure the nonprofit WWF warns could boost illegal logging. Romania is already subject to an EU infringement procedure for failing to stop illegal logging in protected forests.
Slovakia has become one of the EU countries most dependent on Russian gas and fossil fuels, importing 85% of its natural gas from Russia. Concern about the looming energy crisis has already seen a rise in illegal logging and wood theft over the summer.
Demand for firewood almost doubled in September 2022, compared with the previous year. But using firewood in private homes where households are limited to taking 12 cubic meters from the forest, is not the real issue, power plants and heating plants that get wood and subsidies from the EU pose a huge threat to European forests.
Latvia has authorised logging of younger trees and Lithuania’s environment Minister has asked the state forest company to increase harvesting to bolster the country’s bioenergy supply. And in Poland, people are busy cutting trees to gather enough wood for Winter, following encouragement by the country’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski “to burn almost everything, of course aside from tires and similarly harmful things” to keep warm amid a looming coal shortage.
According to the Global Financial Integrity Report, between 10 and 30% of globally traded timber is illegal. For tropical timber that rate is as high as 90%. The Environmental Investigation Agency (DC based nonprofit) reports China is the world’s largest importer of illegal timber, serving as a processing center for illegal shipments from Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Illegal logging is not a victimless crime. The illegal timber trade is soaked with blood, financing violent conflict and providing a cover for other crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, illegaling mining, wildlife trafficking and forced labour. Yet it flies quietly under the radar in many countries due to a lack of regulation or high-level corruption, despite how common it is in many parts of the world.
Who would have thought that logging timber, one of the most commonly used materials in construction and a major source of bio-fuel, would have such far-reaching implications? It is time to address the issues of timber logging across the globe and call on governments to take a stand and protect our timber forests.
We must work together to ensure we have renewable resources for generations to come.
Bamboo must be considered as a compliment to timber for both construction and bio-fuel purposes.
Save the planet, become a bamboo hugger
Everyone says “plant more trees”. Hug trees. Love trees. As wonderful as trees are, our planet simply cannot provide us with all the timber we need, no matter how many trees we plant.
But as you know, there’s a plant that can help. Bamboo. Because bamboo is a grass plant, not a tree, it is designed to be constantly cut down and grow back again.
Unlike trees bamboo is an endless resource
that will never run out.
Its short harvest cycle means its ready for use in 5-7 years, not 50-70. It keeps growing back from the same root system, that also helps reduce soil erosion. It even regenerates degraded land. And it also stores more carbon than trees.
So yes love trees. But love bamboo even more. Because it will save the planet. And give us all the wood material we need, forever!