Confor - Confederation of Forest Industries UK                            DEF0045

 

 

Written evidence submitted by Confor - Confederation of Forest Industries UK

Introduction

About Confor

Confor (www.confor.org.uk) is the not-for-profit organisation for the UK’s sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses. It has 1,500 member companies, employing over 67,000 people and representing the whole supply chain from tree nurseries, forest managers, harvesters, wood fuel suppliers, sawmills, to wood panel businesses. We represent 90% of tree nurseries, 95% of wood processors including wood panel manufacturers, and our members look after 90% of the total managed woodland in the UK.

About this consultation

The Environmental Audit Committee is launching a new inquiry into sustainable timber in the UK and the UK’s contribution to global deforestation. The inquiry will investigate:

1)      how the UK, which imports most of its timber, can best scale up a sustainable, resilient domestic timber sector and reduce its reliance on imports;

2)      the degree to which UK supply chains contribute to deforestation overseas and the effectiveness of the government’s efforts to curb this; and

3)      how the UK works with international partners to tackle deforestation.

Consultation questions

Growing the UK timber industry

  1. Does the UK Government have an adequate understanding of the future demand for timber, including what tree species should be grown?

The UK Government (hopefully) recognises that demand for timber is set to increase in the UK and globally as a result of economic growth and the increased use of wood as part of decarbonisation policies, but it’s not clear that they are aware of the scale of that growth. Confor has estimated that demand could increase by a staggering 78% by 2050 if demand grows at the same pace it has over the last ten years. However, there is a significant gap between the Government’s understanding of timber demand, the implications of net zero policies on demand, and what the UK needs to do to maintain -never mind increase- the current level of supply of UK timber. Despite repeated calls from Confor, there is still a severe lack of joined-up thinking between tree planting and net zero policies: on one side, the UK Government aims to drive the use of wood across the economy to displace high-carbon materials and sequester carbon, on the other side, there appears to be a refusal to listen to the sector’s clear advice that wood supply will decline in future unless there is a fundamental and rapid change in policy and delivery.

According to the most recent government forecasts[1], growth in the timber supply in the UK is beginning to stall and then decline in the 2040s, just as global demand will soar, and the UK economy will require ever growing amounts of timber to meet the net zero target. Confor would observe that at this time the UK is, consciously or unconsciously, putting all its eggs in the basket labelled “ever-increasing timber imports”. If supported by the right tree planting policies, the UK forestry and wood using industry has great potential to contribute more to net zero, to levelling up, to high-quality, energy efficient homes and to avoiding an ever-increasing reliance on imports. Confor cannot think of another industry which offers so much and whose interests appear to be so little supported by government policy and delivery.

  1. Does the UK government, working with the devolved administrations, have an effective, joined-up plan with appropriate incentives to increase the production and use of sustainable, domestically grown timber in the UK to reduce its reliance on imports?

In a word ‘No’. The UK Government set a 30,000ha per year of new tree planting at the 2019 General Election but there is no joined-up plan to deliver it and no breakdown of that target into policy areas like wood production. In fact, it appears that the UK Government is at odds with devolved administrations on future timber production. The Scottish Government is taking action, with around 60% of the forests it creates being productive, and the Welsh Government is in the process of stimulating greater tree planting with a stated desire to see more Welsh grown wood in new Welsh homes. Last year, in England, 2,260 hectares were planted against an aspiration to achieve 7,500 hectares a year by 2024, and only 12% of those forests will produce wood – a paltry 270 hectares. At the same time the UK Government is facilitating the destruction of many hundreds of hectares of productive forest every year in England. In response to a Parliamentary Question, Defra Ministers confirmed that since 2011, over 27,000 hectares of wood producing forest had been lost as a result of Government policy, while only 1,550 hectares of productive woodland were planted in the same period. There has been co-operation between the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments on support to tree nurseries, but tree planting itself, and the types of woodland that are created, are driven by grants and the facts speak for themselves. The net area of wood-producing woodland in the UK is in steady decline and this leaves English forestry and wood processing businesses severely disadvantaged by a lack of secure timber supply.

  1. Are there sustainable sources of biomass for UK energy generation either from imported or domestically grown wood for pellet or woodchip? And how can future demand be met from sustainable sources?

Confor supports the use of sustainable biomass for the local production of heat and power as a very important driver of increased sustainable forest management, which in turn helps improve the natural value and biodiversity outcomes of existing broadleaf woodland. The Woodland Ecological Condition survey[2] showed that the vast majority of broadleaf woodlands in England (up to 80%) is in a degraded condition and under no management plan. This not only makes it very difficult to realise any biodiversity gains, but also means that the biomass that would result from active management is not appropriately used. The source of sustainable biomass is already in existence, but the UK Government needs to focus on increasing the proportion of existing broadleaf woodland under management to deliver it, alongside biodiversity and economic benefits.

Encouraging agroforestry and farming woodland creation is also a very effective way to create and access new supplies of sustainable biomass. Short rotation forestry (SRF) and short rotation coppicing are positive ways for farmers to diversify and increase their income through the supply of biomass for local production of energy and, in the case of SRF, wood panels.

With limited domestic supplies of wood for industrial use, there is a clear case for ensuring that it isn’t diverted from uses that have a greater carbon (and employment) benefit, such as sawnwood and panelboard. Evidence shows that wood delivers greatest carbon and employment benefit when it is used, reused and recycled, and only burnt for energy at ‘end of life’. It is important that the UK Government works closely with the industry to consider different options to increase wood use circularity and establish priority uses.

Ultimately, any use of wood for energy has to come with strong and credible assurances of sustainability and that it clearly contributes to meeting net zero. This is especially the case for imported wood pellet and chip because not all countries have the same robust forestry standards and regulatory systems that the UK has. As well as increasing the area of managed broadleaf and mixed broadleaf/conifer woodland, the creation of new wood producing woodlands will provide additional supplies of wood for local energy as not all of the harvested trees will be used to make sawn timber and panel-boards.

  1. How well is the UK Government managing its plans for the domestic timber industry in tandem with meeting its woodland creation targets and related climate change, biodiversity and other environmental goals?

At present there is no shared ambition or vision for the domestic timber industry. The Government makes mention of the industry in 2021’s England Trees Action Plan, but it would be fair to say that neither Confor nor the businesses in the sector would recognise any government plan for the timber industry.

Historically, policy responsibility for forestry has sat with Defra, but this responsibility effectively stops at the ‘forest gate’, and as Defra’s departmental responsibilities are environmental it means that the considerable grant, regulatory and legislative levers which government has to hand in forestry are used to achieve narrow environmental objectives in England. While various government strategies over the years have included reference to supporting the industry, the overall impact of government intervention in the industry in England has been negative. Defra’s priorities are primarily environmental and do not focus on economic or business growth. Confor has previously approached BEIS to encourage that department to take an interest in forestry and wood processing and provide some economic ‘balance’ to policy making and delivery, but those approaches have been rebuffed with the response that Defra is ‘your sponsor department’.

There is a very strong relationship between wood production and carbon – the government’s own research agency Forest Research has recently produced evidence that makes clear fast-growing conifers remove more carbon from the atmosphere more quickly than broadleaves. There is plenty of evidence that planting modern productive forests results in new habitats with strong biodiversity benefits. However, only 12% of woodland planted last year were productive, and the forestry minister is reported to be forcing an arbitrary maximum of 20% of all new planting to be productive. This is in stark contrast with the reality on the ground: over 80% of the UK’s wood consumption is softwood, but this policy aims to plant 80% of broadleaf (producing hardwood) and only 20% of productive trees for softwood.

Meanwhile thousands of hectares of productive woodland is being destroyed under government policies, and we expect that the manager of the publicly owned forest, Forestry England, will be told to accelerate the destruction of productive forest on the land it manages. Confor can understand that government may wish the forest it owns to be more focused on native woodland managed for wildlife and recreation and less focused on wood production, but that can be achieved by acquiring or planting native woodland in areas accessible for recreation and paid for by disposing of wood producing woodland.

The collaboration between Government and industry is far from where it should be when it comes to joining up support for the domestic timber industry and tree planting efforts. The forestry and wood using sector has been very vocal and consistent in expressing its needs, concerns, and recommendations. However, recently, despite the best efforts of engaged and knowledgeable officials, Government policy appears to be shaped not by evidence and expertise, but rather by the personal preference of the current minister. Despite repeated efforts by Confor, the minister appears unable or unwilling to recognise the carbon, jobs and biodiversity benefits of modern productive forestry. He has been surprised when presented with evidence and plans for new wood producing forests as they appear to be at odds with what he has been told, not by officials. Even then, he has made statements which emphasise that biodiversity should trump all other considerations, whether economic or carbon related. Therefore, given that the Minister sees ‘native woodland’ having the greatest biodiversity value, productive forestry should be sacrificed, disregarding all other issues, such as jobs and climate change.

If true, we see this as a very short-sighted and counterproductive approach. First of all, it hampers the delivery of tree planting targets, as those targets will never be met without large new woodlands being created. Much of those will be productive as it makes woodland creation and management for nature or recreational purposes more financially sustainable in the long term. Secondly, productive forests are key in reducing the threat of deforestation and destruction of vulnerable habitats. According to FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020[3], one third of the global industrial timber supply is produced by only 3% of the global forest area, as productive planting requires smaller land area, is more efficiently managed, and the selection of most resilient and productive tree stock is constantly increasing the wood yield.

A study from 1997 estimated that global use of industrial timber can be met by between 0.3 to 0.6 billion hectares of productive forests against 2-6 billion hectares of natural forests to provide the same quantity[4]. A 2014 study published in the New Zealand Journal of Forestry Science focused on the opportunities of productive forests in both economic and ecological/environmental terms. It found that productive forests reduced harvesting from natural forests by 26% or 816 million m3 globally, while for Europe the reduction was 33%. Because of the higher level of production of biomass for both energy production and industrial uses, prices to consumers were also lower in this scenario[5]. As forestry practice and tree stock selection improves, the benefit of planting productive forests to protect natural ones, in the UK and abroad, is very clear and raises important questions about the negative approach the UK Government has adopted towards productive planting.

The forestry sector was an ‘early adopter’ of sustainability standards, through the UK Forestry Standard in 1997, and around 82% of the softwood production is independently certified. The sector has long prided itself in its ability to provide multiple benefits from the woodlands it creates and the forests it manages. Wood production does operate ‘in tandem’ with carbon, biodiversity, flood mitigation and many other environmental objectives. Indeed, for environmental benefits like carbon and flooding it performs better than ‘native woodland’.

The severe failure in UK Government policy to support the domestic timber industry is partly due to a structural problem – government has a significant impact on UK forestry through regulation, financial support for land management and woodland creation, and the spending of public money on altering the UK’s existing woodland. The danger of that unbalanced approach has been intensified recently with the apparent policy approach of the current forestry minister who still incorrectly refers to monocultures when in reality these have been absent from forestry practice for at least 20 years through the application of the UK Forestry Standard (which has very precise requirements for biodiversity, landscape, climate change, soil and water, communities, and heritage). A stated view by the same minister that the UK can switch from being a producer of softwood products to hardwood even though there is no infrastructure, the quality of the timber resource isn’t there and switching from a tree growth cycle of 30-50 (softwoods) to one of 80-120 years (hardwoods) would see the destruction of most of the existing industry by mid-century as it runs out of wood. It would also run counter to everything that is happening in Europe and North America, which have comparable markets to the UK’s. While the UK Government has established the Timber in Construction Group (which involves DEFRA, BEIS, DLUHC, and representatives of the sector including Confor) to find ways to drive up the use of wood-based products in the construction sector, the Minister has said that he wants this to benefit the greater use of hardwoods (from broadleaf trees) even though this is a small percentage of the market and less than 1% of the UK’s wood production (90% of UK hardwoods are used for woodfuel) – which can’t change for a century or more.

At present the UK Government is communicating a reluctance to accept the need to plant more productive woodland or, at the very least to not obstruct it. Without increased domestic supply, the wood using sector’s contribution to net zero will reduce, not grow and the supply of imports will accelerate. We feel that the Government’s plans for the domestic timber sector are not serious and fail to meet with equal ambition the many opportunities for growth and innovation that the industry has put forward.

  1. How effectively is the UK strengthening the resilience of its tree stock to ensure it is resilient to the future impacts of climate change, as well as to pests and diseases?

Once more, genuine and open-minded collaboration between industry and Government is essential in addressing the climate change challenge. Confor is working with partner organisations on improving the resilience of trees and woodland in the UK. One of our partners is Future Trees Trust who have focused on different approaches to improve the resilience and adaptation to climate change of British woodlands and forests. Among their key recommendations are the use of improved planting stock to ensure a faster establishment (and there are both private enterprises who are working on this, like Maelor Forest Nurseries, Forest Research’s improved Sitka spruce project, and the University of Oxford’s Sitka Spruced initiative); the inclusion of both native and non-native species in planting schemes, particular attention to the planting site and its characteristic to identify the most suitable species for it; drawing the planting stock from a broad genetic base to ensure higher resistance to pests and diseases; trialling different stock and species at different sites to assess the regional suitability. 

The effectiveness of UK efforts to reduce global deforestation

  1. How effectively is the Government monitoring the UK’s contribution to global deforestation and its progress in tackling the issue? And what progress has been made by Government to develop an indicator on overseas environmental impacts of UK consumption of key commodities?

A recently published report by Friends of the Earth[6] that quotes data from the RSPB and WWF notes that the UK’s overseas footprint for timber imports is an extraordinary 8.4 million hectares. While the UK has strong controls in place, including the due diligence requirements in the Environment Act, to ensure that timber imports are sourced from legal or sustainably managed forest, many other countries are less well regulated. There is a very real risk that the reduction in global availability of wood will put pressure on natural and semi-natural forests from developing countries with lower sustainability and environmental standards and weak forestry and trade governance to check the provenance and sourcing of timber. As Russia holds the largest timber reserves in the world and is already one of the largest exporters, the wider environmental and sustainability consequences and geopolitical implications of the UK’s dependency on imports should raise concerns. So far, the UK’s share of Russian wood imports has been limited, but still considerable: in 2021, the UK imported 883,000 tonnes of wood-based products (including paper). The forecast rise in global and domestic demand, coupled with the UK’s over-reliance on timber imports, should be sufficient to spur the Government into action to increase domestic supply.

  1. To what extent have the Global Resource Initiative (GRI) Taskforce’s recommendations on deforestation and land conversion been met by the Government?

The Global Resource Initiative Recommendations report states that supply chains are at the core of the transformation requiredby the effort to end the UK’s contribution to global deforestation and rightly suggests setting a binding target for UK businesses to end deforestation in their supply chains. Due diligence is mentioned as a key instrument for companies and importers to ensure the sustainability of the resources they import. We support this and have been at the forefront of promoting sustainability in timber sourcing for a long time by supporting initiatives like the Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification standards. However, it is important to go beyond assessing and monitoring only the direct impact of specific supply chains. As global demand steadily rises over the next few decades, it will be necessary for the UK Government to consider the wider implications of higher standards for UK businesses and imports. As British business secures a larger share of certified commodities, inevitably other buyers in countries with lower standards and looser checks will continue increasing the pressure on fragile habitats.

One way to address this at a global level is for the UK Government to continue its engagement with other countries and global business, leading the fight against deforestation as it did with the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use signed at COP26. At the 15th World Forestry Congress that took place in Korea in May, six countries signed a statement[7] that called for the use of sustainable forest products across multiple value chains, including construction, furniture, packaging, renewable energy, biomaterials for clothing and biochemicals to be scaled up to decarbonise and keep 1.5 alive. The UK Government should also sign this statement and, at COP27, lead the conversation to turn it into a clear action plan.

Action at global level needs to be strengthened by action at home. The reform of the wood products supply chain must have the increased domestic supply of the wood resource at its heart as a way to take direct responsibility for the country’s need for natural resources. As the world’s second largest importer of wood products after China, the UK needs to increase its domestic supply and to do this, the UK Government must support the expansion of the domestic wood using industry by increasing tree planting, including the appropriate proportion of productive woodland, and sustainable management of existing woodland. Friends of the Earth in their Why we need more trees in the UK[8] report recommends that the UK plans for at least 1 million hectares of additional productive woodland at home to increase domestic supply in line with demand; this is a fundamental step for the UK to control the risk of deforestation abroad from the increase in imports that will otherwise become necessary. Crucially and with the complete support and agreement of the forestry and wood industry, Friends of the Earth also recommend that the additional productive woodland is created and managed in compliance to UKFS and UKWAS standards to ensure environmental and nature, as well as economic and societal benefits.

  1. What role can sustainable certification and Government Buying Standards (GBS), have in tackling deforestation? How can the UK Government support the private sector to reduce its contribution to furthering deforestation?

The UK Government has over recent decades taken a pro-active role in introducing policies to limit the import of illegally logged timber and has sought through its own purchasing power to focus on buying timber from demonstrably sustainably managed sources. However, these are not ‘water-tight’ measures and we should also be very aware that introducing ever stricter controls in the UK has limited impact if timber from illegally logged or unsustainably managed forests simply flows to other countries where the controls are less strict. Timber is a global commodity. The World Bank has projected that climate friendly solutions made from timber, as well as increased urbanisation, will see a quadrupling of global timber demand by 2050. The world must look to ensure supply keeps up with demand in the coming decades, and there are few countries with plans in place to do that.

Cherry picking supplies of wood from legal and sustainable sources may help the UK to boast of its green credentials and express concern for global biodiversity and tackling deforestation, but simply ramping up demand for imports at the same time as making no effort to increase domestic wood supply makes those claims appear somewhat hollow.

We should continue with the policies we have on imported timber, but also ramp up domestic timber supply so that we take on our share of the responsibility for matching global demand with supply. This practical measure will provide increasing volumes of wood that we know is both legal and sustainable and help the private sector to avoid putting ever-increasing pressure on global wood supply and through that on fragile forests overseas.

And in the immediate term, Government Ministers should champion the purchasing of UK-grown and produced forest products in the same way it promotes UK food.

September 2022


[1] Forest Research, 50-year Softwood Availability Forecast, July 2022; accessible here

[2] Forest Research, National Forest Inventory: Woodland Ecological Condition. https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/national-forest-inventory/what-our-woodlands-and-tree-cover-outside-woodlands-are-like-today-nfi-inventory-reports-and-woodland-map-reports/nfi-woodland-ecological-condition/

[3] UN-FAO, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020; accessible here

[4] Barua, SK, Lehtonen, P, Pahkasalo, T (2014) Plantation vision: potentials, challenges and policy options for global industrial forest plantation development. International Forestry Review 16: 117-127.

[5] Buongiorno, J. & Zhu, S. (2014) Assessing the impact of planted forests on the global forest economy, New Zealand journal of forestry science, 44(Suppl 1).

[6] Friends of the Earth, Why we need more trees in the UK, 2022. Accessible here.

[7] UN-FAO, Ministerial Call on Sustainable Wood, May 2022. Accessible here.

[8] Friends of the Earth, Why we need more trees in the UK, pages 30-31.