IIASA researchers contributed to a new study analyzing factors affecting future wood supply in Europe such as climate change, land use, and policy developments. The authors propose practical response measures for different stakeholder groups, including the wood-based industry, forest management, and policymakers.

The study on Europe’s wood supply in disruptive times was released by TEAMING UP 4 FORESTS, a science-business platform founded by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and Mondi to connect stakeholders across the forest value chain. The platform comprises a professional network of 100+ scientists (including several IIASA researchers), business representatives, and policymakers.

The new publication captures the factors identified in numerous scientific studies influencing wood supply from European forests, and outlines the impacts of climate change, while also considering other factors, such as political uncertainties and a fragmented forest landscape. Bridging the gap between science and application of insights, the authors highlight practical implications and response measures for the wood-based industry, forest management, and policymakers. The study compiles the findings of a wide range of scientific papers and research, and also includes the perspectives of different stakeholders evaluated during the process.

Challenges for forests and the wood-based industry

Forests in Europe are strongly affected by climate change, with far-reaching consequences for forest health and ecosystem services, including the supply of wood. Tree species of great commercial importance are significantly impacted by disturbances such as extreme drought events, bark beetle infestation, frequent heatwaves, and wildfires. Forests and wood-based industries also face other challenges such as political uncertainties and a fragmented forest landscape caused by alterations in land use.

With forests being highly sensitive to climate change and significantly impacted by disturbances such as drought or heat, forest owners and managers are urged to take adaptive measures.

“We need more mixed and structurally diverse forests, including natural regeneration and active assisted migration of species that are more adapted to future climates,” explains study author Manfred Lexer from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Austria. “In European forests that are available for wood supply we have six dominant tree species: pine, spruce, fir, beech, oak, and birch. Spruce, beech, and pine are among the most vulnerable species, especially to drought,” he adds.

The results, for example, indicate that the forest area in Europe suitable for Norway spruce will decrease by about 50% depending on different climate change scenarios, while the suitability for other species will increase significantly. For the wood-based sector, which relies on the sufficient availability of woody biomass, it is key to gradually move away from the current strong dependency on softwoods (such as spruce and pine) and consider the production of new value-added wood-based products. Emerging products such as wood-based plastics, textile fibers or nano-fibrillated cellulose for packaging, for instance, are less dependent on certain tree species than traditional products.

“In view of these challenges and a growing demand for wood-based products, forest-based industries in Europe will need to reflect their current business models. Technological and digital innovation, as well as a cascading use of wood is driving the transition towards a circular economy and supports the adaptation to future changes in wood supply,” comments study author Anne-Christine Ritschkoff from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. “The future of research and innovation should be focused on the holistic and resource-efficient use of wood materials,” she says.

The role of forest ownership

Other factors impacting the supply of wood include forest ownership and demographic changes among landowners. While there are differences in forest ownership between European regions, the share of private forest ownership has increased since the early 1990s, with 56% of European forest areas now being privately owned. In addition, private ownership has become more heterogeneous with more non-traditional, urban, or passive owners. This often leads to less interest or capacity among forest owners to supply wood to the market.

“Wood harvesting and profit maximization are not the only – or even the primary – motivation for many forest owners and, therefore, are not the main goal of their management practices. It will be important for policymakers to implement initiatives that engage and incentivize private forest owners,” comments study author Špela Pezdevšek Malovrh from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

Policies to promote sustainable forest management

The factors affecting forests and wood supply outlined in the study need corresponding policy responses at different levels from global to local, particularly a better harmonization and integration of policies that promote sustainable forest management practices.

“Strategic investments in research and innovation are needed to develop integrated, sustainable wood supply strategies and technologies that can adapt to changing circumstances, including the regionalization of supply chains and evolving market dynamics,” notes study coauthor Florian Kraxner who leads the Agriculture, Forestry, and Ecosystem Services Research Group at IIASA. “This will support the development of wood supply strategies and technologies to ensure adaptation and resilience of European forests to climate change in the long-term.”

The authors further emphasize that cooperation and partnerships are paramount to successfully navigating the uncertainties and changes ahead for the future of wood supply in Europe. Interdisciplinary, transnational, and cross-sectoral collaborations can facilitate the implementation of successful strategies and guide the wood-based industry towards innovation, adaptability, and resilience amid evolving challenges. Beyond cooperation, the study shows that education and communication within and outside the forest-based sector, are crucial for sustainable forest management and engaging future generations.

The synthesis study report and a business brief are now available on the TEAMING UP 4 FORESTS website at teamingup4forests.com/wood-supply-study. Key study findings will be discussed by the study authors on 18 March at 13:00 CET in a webinar titled Europe’s wood supply in disruptive times hosted by TEAMING UP 4 FORESTS.

Adapted from a press release prepared by IUFRO.

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