Dr. Alastair Fraser                            DEF0003

Written evidence submitted by Dr. Alastair Fraser

parliamentary environmental audit committtee


Study on the links between the sustainability of the UK’s timber industry, imports of key commodities, and global deforestation.


1.      The evidence presented below is based on my personal working experience during 10 years with Forest Research and more than 40 years as an international forestry consultant.  During that time, I worked in more than 80 countries worldwide for a wide range of agencies including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, DFID, Bilateral agencies from Finland, Germany and Denmark and several UN agencies including FAO, UNIDO and ILO as well as private sector commercial companies.  Much of what is written below is covered in more detail in two books that I have published Achieving Sustainable Forest Management (2019)  Springer Nature ISSN 2523-3092 (electronic) and Making Forest Policy Work, (2002) Kluwer Academic Publishers, (Now owned by Springer) ISBN 1-4020-1088-5

Growing the UK timber industry

2.      A search on-line failed to identify any long-term production forecast for either timber supply or timber demand in the UK, so planning for a sustainable timber industry is somewhat meaningless.  The current estimate of wood consumption in the UK by Forest Research raises a number of questions because in order to have a proper understanding of supply and demand the results need to be expressed in terms of the Roundwood equivalent (rwe) to know the full impact of the demand on the resource.  The current estimate for 2021 is around 34.5 million m3 of products, but when this is converted to rwe using international average conversion factors the total is around 60.5 million m3 rwe, which represents about 0.889 m3 per caput per annum.  Data from FAO for 1998 indicates that, at that time the population of the UK was around 58 million and the per capita consumption of wood products was around 0.67 m3.  This suggests that there has been a significant increase in timber consumption over the past 3 decades, which is in line with the growth in GNP which grew from around $ 1.2 billion in 1998 to more than $3 billion in 2021.  Future forecasts of timber demand need to take account of the expected growth in both GDP and population.   Softwood species such as Pine and Spruce are preferred for most uses as they generally have better form and are easier to process than hardwoods.  The latter are preferred for some specialist uses such as high quality furniture and musical instruments.

3.      The short answer to this question is NO, as there seems to be no plans to ensure that suitable land is made available.  Climate change targets suggest that methane production from livestock should be reduced and for health reason the public should reduce the consumption of meat, so policy needs to incentivise farmers to make modest reductions in their livestock herds, and plant trees on the land that would no longer be required for grazing.  The agricultural and forestry grant schemes need to be integrated.  There are also very large tracts of land used primarily for sport such as deer stalking and grouse shooting, which could be partially reforested in an ecologically friendly way, with considerable benefits for wildlife.

4.      The sustainability of biomass production, whether in the UK or overseas is totally dependent on a legally binding long-term assurance that the crop will be regenerated as woodland after harvesting and not converted to another land-use.  There are risks that productivity may decline after several rotations of tree crops, especially if coppiced and this need to be taken into account when doing an environmental audit of sources of biomass.

5.      Again, the short answer to this question is NOT WELL.   As in many countries, responsibility for forestry and the timber industry is very fragmented with forestry under different agencies to the industry and devolved governments.  This makes a coherent policy framework very difficult.  It also means that there is no single strong voice to influence policy making.   Even the private sector is divided between the Timber Trades Association mainly for importers and CONFOR for the domestic industry.

6.      Because trees are very slow growing it is difficult to know what environmental conditions wiil exist when current tree planting reaches harvesting age.  However, foresters are acutely aware of the dangers associated with climate change and are making adjustments where appropriate.  However, trees and forests can play a very important role in mitigating the effects of climate change, not just by sequestering carbon, but also by reducing the impact of flash flooding, and despite all the river basin planning there seems to be little sign of trees being considered as one form of flood protection.

The effectiveness of UK efforts to reduce global deforestation

7.      Prior to Brexit, the UK was party to a series of EU regulations under the general title of FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade), that included Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA) with a number of countries to ensure that all timber exported to the EU was both legal and from sustainably managed forests. The UK Timber Regulation follows the same pattern.  However, there is a flaw in these agreements which makes them largely ineffective in preventing illegal logging and unsustainable forest harvesting.  This is because it only covers those suppliers that export to the EU or UK. In South East Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia and Philippines) where I have worked for much of the past 30 years, the problem is leakage.  Each of those countries has an enormous domestic demand for timber, which the big companies that mainly export, hardly touch with the result that there are thousands of small and generally unlicenced sawmills that rely on illegally felled logs, since they do not have access to regulated concessions.  The only way to reduce this form of illegal logging is to make VPAs apply to the whole forest area and not just to those that supply timber for export.  To be effective, such an agreement would have to include Japan and China as well as UK, EU and the USA.



8.      There is a lot of monitoring of deforestation by many agencies worldwide, but there seems to be little evidence of the UK Government correlating information about illegal logging and deforestation with activities by UK based companies as a means of enforcing the UK Timber Regulation.   To monitor the impact of UK consumption of timber and other commodities it would need to collect information on the precise location of the source of each commodity rather than just the country of origin.

9.      The Environment Act appears mainly to repeat or endorse the UK Timber Regulation, and is fine as far as it goes, but in the light of my comments in Paragraph 7 above, is unlikely to do much to reduce illegal logging.

10.  With due respect, the GRI Taskforce was very light on people with experience in the field of the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. There seems to have been nobody with international forestry experience nor representative of one of the NGOs that currently monitor deforestation. They recommended an international gathering to discuss these issues, prior to COP26, but it seems that that did not happen and only took place during the COP.  Although adopted by a good number of countries some key players did not endorse the Glasgow Agreement and so its effectiveness is likely to be limited.  Since 1992 there have been numerous agreements relating to reducing deforestation, with little or no effect.   This is because they do not address the underlying issues that drive deforestation.

11.  These are complex, and include a) the high Opportunity cost of retaining forest rather than converting it to an alternative use; even if carbon values are included forest is still worth much less than many other land-uses in financial terms  b) the fact that most of the real value of forests are economic rather than financial, because the supply of logs is more or less unlimited and their value is therefore low; c) food insecurity resulting from very low agricultural productivity that drives small farmers to clear forest; shifting cultivation, as practised by many indigenous communities is now widely unsustainable due to a combination of population increase and reduced forest area, so rotations are reduced and the soil does not have time to restore fertility and yields are decreasing. d) excessive demand for commodities such as beef, soya beans and palm oil in wealthy countries; e) lack of effective land-use policies in many developing countries that favour large commercial companies rather than the local population, f) many timber concessionaires do some illegal logging by encroaching on protected forest areas adjacent to their concessions and g) many wood processing facilities in poor countries have very low product recovery factors often using more than 3 m3 of logs per m3 of product and the residues are often burnt or left to rot rather than being used for some other purpose; the UK timber trade could take steps to remedy this problem by investing in small sawmills supplying local markets.   Unless these issues are addressed, deforestation is likely to continue until there is so little forest left that the price of timber starts to increase, By this time it will be too late to restore forest with the level of biodiversity found in natural forest (as has happened in the UK).


12.  Certification is a valuable concept, but will only work if applied to a whole country rather than to an individual company or concession holder

Working with international partners to tackle deforestation 

13.  I believe that the UK engages well with other major donors, especially multi-nationals such as the World Bank, but it really needs to engage more actively with those countries that are experiencing serious deforestation and degradation to find ways of addressing the underlying causes referred to in paragraph 11 above.   Declarations have proved pretty futile in the past.   Most countries that are plagued with deforestation are poor and will demand compensation to implement difficult and probably unpopular policies.



14.  At the present time, the UK measures to tackle deforestation appear to be to require importers to carry out due diligence on their imported timber products to ensure that they are certified as originating from sustainably managed forests.   This assumes that the agency doing the certification has investigated the impact of the certified harvesting on any indigenous people or local communities that will be affected.   Part of the Certification process includes a check that the company concerned has a legal right to do the harvesting, often in the form of a concession agreement, but in many countries these agreements have covered forest land that has been occupied by indigenous people for generations.  This should invalidate the certification but often does not


15.  Russia, which is a major supplier of timber products to the UK only has 7.4% of its forest area certified by either FSC or PEFC. While Canada has around 55%.  Both of these are dubious, because both countries rely heavily on natural regeneration to restore forest cover, and both have been subject to large scale wildfires.



Alastair Fraser,   B.Sc.(Forestry) , Ph.D.

August 2022