Forest sector and NGOs warn over unchecked biofuels growth

Increasing demands are being placed on forests worldwide as competition between traditional wood-use sectors and bio-energy heats up, NGOs and industry warn.

The capability of European forests to meet both growing demand from biofuels and the more traditional uses of wood such as timber, pulp and paper came under scrutiny at a workshop organised by the United Nations and forest-based industry organisations on 11-12 January in Geneva.

Over one hundred particpants in the workshop noted with satisfaction that, despite increasing demand for wood, forest growth in Europe still far exceeds the volume of wood harvested. The increase in forest volume offers more habitats for biodiversity, a wide array of timber and offers employment opportunities, the participants agreed.

However, they warned that the intensified use of forests may have some unwanted side-effects:

  • Forests help to protect soil from erosion, and play an important role in the water cycle and in water quality. However, intensive logging may impair these functions;
  • more intensively used forests may pose a problem for biological diversity. Tree species composition may be less varied, as choices concentrate on fast-growing species, leading to a reduction of genetic diversity;
  • increased demand may mean that the growth of food and the provision of other non-wood goods and services on lands will be less attractive, and;
  • increased extraction of trees may lead to a risk of nutrient imbalance.

In order to use wood resources sustainably in the future, the workshop recommended that governments, in cooperation with stakeholders, introduce comprehensive policies for the forest sector, rural development and energy while at the same time ensuring co-ordination of these policies with other sectors.

The challenge posed for Europe's forest sector was reflected by Bernard de Galembert, Forest Director at CEPI, who said: "Since traditional use of wood in Europe, notably by the pulp and paper industry, continues to expand as well, the competition between wood for bio-energy and for traditional wood processing industry is an increasing challenge."

In an open letter to the EU, Latin American NGOs criticised the growing use of biofuels as an aggravating cause of global warming, saying that it would come at the expense of the South.

"It is most unlikely that Europe will ever achieve self-sufficiency in the production of biofuel from national production of energy crops and therefore it is very possible that this will be done at the expense of lands on which the food sovereignty of our countries depend," the group said.

"While Europeans maintain their lifestyle based on automobile culture, the population of Southern countries will have less and less land for food. We will have to base our diet on imported food, possibly from Europe.

"In other cases, energy crops will be grown in Latin America ... at the expense of our natural ecosystems. it is a fact that monoculture soybean plantations are one of the main causes of the destruction of the rainforest in Argentina, of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia and of the Mata Atlântica in Brazil and Paraguay."

Demand for wood is increasing as bio-energy continues to receive attention as a 'carbon-neutral' energy source that can reduce Europe's external energy depence. The Commission's latest policy initiative in the area, part of the energy and climate-change package of 10 January 2007, proposed that 10% of EU transport fuel should come from biofuels by 2020. 

The Commission has promised to focus on second-generation biofuels produced from sources such as straw, timber, woodchips or manure. These are believed to be superior to the current 'first generation', made from crops such as sugar beet and rapeseed (see Commission public consultation on biofuels). The forest-based sector in Europe employs around 3.5 million people and has an annual turnover of some €400 billion.

In his State of the Union address on 24 January, US President George Bush, said he intends to move towards greater use of biofuels: "We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes," he said.

"Let us build on the work we have done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20% in the next 10 years - when we do that, we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East."

  • Early 2007:Commission due to produce a communication on "Innovative and sustainable forest-based industries in the EU"

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