The timber giant

Finland is the third most forested country in Europe after Sweden and Spain and, despite the exportation, its forest cover increases.

by Davide Tabarelli
20 December 2019
12 min read
by Davide Tabarelli
20 December 2019
12 min read

With climate change now a global emergency, international political commitments are being made to cut CO2 emissions through treaties such as the ones signed in Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015. In turn, the governments of individual countries are announcing equally ambitious objectives, often followed by the administrations of individual cities.  Long-term objectives are being set, over twenty or thirty years, far longer than the mandates received by the politicians through elections. 22 years have passed since the Kyoto agreement, now somewhat forgotten, particularly as it was replaced by the one signed in Paris, but the objective set at the time has been completely missed, given that, rather than falling, emissions have increased by almost 50 percent.  Despite the fact that only 4 years have passed since the Paris agreement, the trend is still up and highlights all the difficulties involved in turning big political statements into more effective actions. A greater awareness of this gap means that the policies are evolving, with the objective changing from achieving a reduction to simply balancing emissions. In essence, once CO2 emissions, if unavoidable, are offset by absorption, then the objective is still achieved. 

Emission absorption techniques, work in progress

The techniques for absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere are not simple. For decades, attempts have been made with underground storage, using filters to capture it from the air or the smoke from power plants, subsequently injecting it into the subsoil in a kind of cycle that puts the carbon back where it came from when the fossil fuels were extracted. The process is as easy to describe as it is difficult to implement. CO2 is too widely dispersed in the atmosphere and, according to the statistics, it accounts for 420 parts per million, i.e. 0.042 percent of the air. Capturing a substance with such a low density is very expensive. Even if we were able to capture it with more effective instruments thanks to new technologies, the fact remains that, at high concentrations, CO2 is dangerous to transport and also becomes a toxic product. Injecting it into the subsoil is equivalent to storing a hazardous substance, essentially a special waste, that would require constant control of the deposit, with monitoring constraints that could last for decades, Having noted the difficulty of capturing and storing the gas, research has taken the path of reusing CO2 by experimenting with cements on the surfaces of buildings that absorb it from the atmosphere. Equally interesting is the cultivation of algae, where photosynthesis, the chemical process underlying all life on earth, uses CO2 to produce chlorophyll. Synthetic photosynthesis, performed in a laboratory, could soon drive the process towards growing particular types of plants capable of absorbing CO2 in large quantities and everywhere, while at the same time contributing to solving the problem of food shortages for the growing world population.

Figures for the contribution of forests

While waiting for research to give more effective results, there is a rediscovery of the potential offered by the expansion of forests, where humans lived for millennia, harvesting their fruits, using wood as a material to build houses and tools and to make fire, their first and greatest technological innovation. Focusing on absorption by plants, however, requires us to reflect on carbon balances and carbon cycles in the atmosphere, to better understand the complexity of the issue. Emissions from fossil fuels produced by man, which are growing strongly, are in the order of 32 billion tons a year, while the amount absorbed by plants through photosynthesis is estimated at around 225 billion, offset by emissions due to the decay of the plants themselves in order of 220 billion, with a net positive capture effect of 5 billion, about one sixth of human emissions from fuels. Inevitably, any effort made to increase forest cover is positive in terms of absorption. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global deforestation is slowing down. While it continues in areas where there are greater numbers of poor people, who live in forests, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Amazon, the trend in some wealthy regions, particularly Europe, has reversed.  Here, for a while now, there has been talk of a circular economy, aimed at reducing the impact of the use of resources. The economic model that involves caring for forests has always considered the regeneration and overall use of the material, with associated positive effects, such as the maintenance of biodiversity, protection of the soil, water purification, support for local communities in peripheral rural areas, in difficult and economically weak areas. The recent vision set out by the European Union in the climate and energy package for total decarbonization by 2050, refers specifically to energy communities, where consumers produce their energy with biomass, or wood, for traditional use in heating systems or to produce biogas from which to extract biomethane.

This will see a return to the tradition of forest communities, where wood becomes the main source of energy and also building material.

Apart from being evocative, the cultivation of wood through reforestation is well suited to this model, boosting and strengthening it.

The Italian and Finnish models compared

In Europe, after centuries of deforestation to make room for agriculture and livestock, forests are rapidly expanding, which is positive news and will hopefully lead to the same happening in the rest of the world. This improvement does not free Europe from the paradox of being strongly critical of deforestation in countries where it is essential for the purpose of expanding agriculture. The rules of development are very clear and show that the transition from rural subsistence to intensive agriculture is the first step on the  development path. It also serves to slow down the inevitable migration of billions of people from the countryside to the cities. The return of forests to Europe is not as virtuous as it seems as it stems from the abandonment of agriculture, which is no longer profitable, in some cases because food is imported from countries that are slowly emerging from absolute poverty.

Statistics show that between 1990 and 2015, European forested areas increased by 8 million hectares, an area equivalent to the size of Scotland. The greatest contributor is Italy, a relatively small country, which over 25 years has seen its forest cover increase from 2 million to over 11 million hectares, more than one third of its entire surface area of almost 30 million hectares.  On average, Italian forests have absorbed around 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year, 7 percent of total emissions. As it has done all over Europe, in Italy too the return of forests is a result of farming being abandoned, a consequence of the process of impoverishment that leads to a disorderly increase with the emergence of other problems. The farming crisis also extends to forestry and the mountain economy, which are suffering from depopulation and unemployment. Neglect facilitates fires, as fallen branches are no longer collected and undergrowth develops that is easier to ignite, while sudden heavy rains clog up the water courses and worsen hydrogeological instability.

The abundance of wood in other European countries, particularly in the East, has led to the paradox that production in Italy is falling in favor of imports, while forests are increasingly being abandoned.

One European country that has however experienced a virtuous process in forest management is Finland, a country that has always lived in symbiosis with the wood produced and cultivated in its forests. Finland is the third most forested country in Europe after Sweden and Spain and, despite the constant growth in timber production, most of it exported, its forest cover continues to increase. The country is a global benchmark for forest management policies, both because of its traditional aspects and those associated with technological innovation. Forests have always been managed by cooperatives, for the benefit of rural communities that live in countries that could not survive without the timber economy. Äänekoski is a small town of 20,000 inhabitants, 300 kilometers north of Helsinki, and is home to one of the world's biggest tree processing plants, mostly conifers, cut from nearby forests.  The company Metsä owns the plant and has just completed a restructuring with 1.3 billion euros of investment. Metsä in turn is owned by a cooperative of 103,000 members who are also small land owners in the forests where the wood is harvested.

In 2018, it had a turnover of 2.5 billion euros, with production plants in 15 countries. The new plant is the most advanced, where profits are made and the forest is helped to grow. For each tree that is cut, 4 are planted, then, over the years, the less luxuriant ones are cut and only the strongest are left to grow, until they are between 60 and 70 years old. The ones that are cut down end up in the factory to make chipboard and paper pulp. Nothing in the factory is wasted. The most valuable part is the boards destined for construction and the furniture industry, but there are also prunings and sawdust that end up in plywood. The heat and electricity the plant uses are produced by burning other waste. The factory has a research department that has already started producing new sheets, made with waste, particularly suitable for high quality prints. The most interesting developments relate to new applications, starting with the replacement of cement and steel in large buildings. In these cases, not only does the wood store the carbon absorbed during growth, but also allows the substitution of two materials that produce the most CO2 during their production processes. The ambition is even to replace the plastic in the packaging with wood material developed in such a way as to be completely aseptic, as required by the law on food preservation. This would allow the containers to be freed of the plastic currently trapped among the timber and then fully recycle without burning it.

Even more innovative is the research being done to develop new textile fibers that can compete with those derived from oil and, above all, with cotton, which requires vast agricultural areas and enormous volumes of water.

There is no shortage of criticism about the factory among the local community, which is more attentive to the environment and would like less use of chemicals and diesel, while others, who are more fundamentalist, would like the forests to be left intact and completely untouched. These criticisms fuel discussion and involve the direct participation of the families making up the cooperative. The ensuing investments create a word class state-of-the-art timber economy that extends spontaneously to the surrounding environment, in a virtuous cycle that has lasted for millennia.

The author: Davide Tabarelli

Davide Tabarelli is president and cofounder of Nomisma Energia, an independent private company based in Bologna doing research in the energy sector. He started his career in Nomisma in 1986. Ever since then he has spent all his activity as consultant for the Italian and the international energy sector, covering all main issues of the industry. He has been assistant of the minister of Industry in 1995 and was responsible for the assistance to the minister of Environment for policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases emissions. He is visiting professor in energy economics at the Politecnico of Milan and University of Bologna. He is editorialist for energy issues on Sole 24 Ore. He has been member of several ministerial committees of experts on energy.