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Forest products in the global bioeconomy

LIGNO Admin Nov 14, 2021 Sustainable development 0 Comments


There is a growing understanding that a rethink of the global economic system is necessary to address the root causes of the unsustainable use of natural resources and achieve sustainable development. The bioeconomy has emerged as a concept for tackling challenges such as the overconsumption of and overreliance on non-renewable natural resources. The bioeconomy commonly refers to the use of biological resources and processes. Bio-based materials can substitute fossil sources to produce energy, food, feed, fibre, and other manufactured goods.


The development of the sustainable bioeconomy is considered as a way of helping to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. A recent report on "Forest products in the global bioeconomy" by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) addresses the role of forest products in the global bioeconomy. In particular it explores how substitution of greenhouse gas intensive products by wood-based products could help replace fossil-based and GHG-intensive products. It explores how substitution by forest products could support sustainable development.


The bioeconomy can be defined in many ways and hence there are many different interpretations of the concept. Several countries around the world have a dedicated bioeconomy strategy or action plan. Other countries do not have a dedicated strategy but may have strategies or action plans that relate to the bioeconomy. The focus of these strategies and action plans varies significantly; many of them relate to innovation and biotechnology to develop new value-added products (e.g. chemicals, packaging or biofuels) or improve the productivity of biological resources, and bioenergy. A smaller number address issues related to rural development, biodiversity and sustainable management, and biomass supply. The role of ecosystem services and sustainability is acknowledged in several strategies, but not always elaborated in detail. What is more, the role of forests and the forest sector is not always clearly acknowledged in bioeconomy strategies or the related strategies and action plans.


Forests and the forest sector are nevertheless important components of a sustainable circular bioeconomy. The sector has long manufactured numerous everyday products. For some of these products, significant changes have occurred recently. Graphic paper is one product group marked by structural change, where demand has stabilized or has even declined in some world regions over the last 15 years, due to the adoption of internet and electronic media. Some studies estimate that a decrease in global newsprint, printing and writing paper consumption could by 2030 make available an additional 229 – 259 million cubic metres of roundwood equivalent for other uses.



New products and technologies are emerging, aiming to increase the added value of wood products, decrease the carbon and water footprint of products and processes, reduce pollution and waste generation, and improve circularity. Engineered wood products and wood-based textile fibres are two such emerging forest product categories. The production and consumption of engineered wood products are rising, mainly due to increased application in wood-frame multistorey construction, facilitated by building codes that are based on better, up-to-date knowledge of wood as a construction material and the possibility of prefabricated elements and modules that can readily be used in the construction process. Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) is considered for many construction applications (including floors, walls, and roofs) to substitute non-renewable, GHG-intensive construction materials, and for its good acoustics and insulation performance, among other characteristics. While comprehensive statistics are not yet available for production, trade and apparent consumption of engineered construction materials, studies exist that estimated CLT production will be three million cubic metres by 2030.



Meanwhile, wood-based textile fibres have seen their global consumption increase since the last decade, and it could take an even larger share of the market, which is currently dominated by petroleum-based fibres. Lyocell fibres, for example, can be used for textiles, nonwovens, and specialty papers. Lyocell has properties that are similar to viscose and polyester yet is more environmentally friendly to produce. With ever-increasing demand for textile fibres and with cotton production almost reaching its peak, wood-based textile fibres may offer a suitable alternative. In 2019, only 6.4 percent of the global textile fibre market was man-made cellulosic fibres indicating an opportunity for growth.


Finally, forests can provide many non-wood products with high economic value. For example, resins and derivates thereof are used to manufacture products in the chemical and food industries. Chemicals derived from resin generally have a smaller carbon footprint than their fossil-based equivalents, which could at least partially favour the substitution, of fossil-based chemicals.


There is strong evidence at product level that wood products are associated with lower GHG emissions over their entire life cycle when compared to products made from non-renewable or emissions-intensive materials. A review of 488 substitution factors obtained from 64 published studies indicates that the use of wood and wood-based products is generally associated with lower fossil and process-based emissions when compared to non-wood, functionally equivalent products.


However, over three-quarters of studies in the literature focus on the construction sector and significantly less information exists for other traditional forest products such as paper for printing, writing, and packaging, or emerging forest products. Furthermore, most of the studies from which substitution factors could be derived focus on North America and the Nordic countries in Europe; substitution effects by wood products from many other areas of the world are not well understood, despite their relative importance in the global wood markets. The reviewed product-level substitution factors entail substantial variability and uncertainty, explained by differences in assumptions, data and methods. Indeed, the overall substitution factor for 95 percent of the values range between -1.1kg C/kg C and +5.2kg C/ kg C. Substitution effects depend on the type of wood product being considered, the type of non-wood product that it substitutes, production technologies and efficiencies and the end-of-life management of wood and non-wood products, which can all vary between companies, regions and countries. Substitution factors reported in or derived from the international literature are context specific and generalizations are therefore not straightforward. The overall substitution effects also depend on the share of different forest products in the total product mix of a sector or country. There is still limited understanding of the substitution effects at the level of markets, countries or global regions, presumably due to limited information on end uses of wood and the difficulty in determining which materials are substituted.


While forest products can provide benefits compared to the use of non-renewable, GHG-intensive materials, there are also potential risks associated with the increased production and consumption of forest products. The production and extraction of raw materials needed to manufacture products has economic, social and environmental impacts. The increased use of forest products raises concerns regarding increased pressure on forests and forest-dependent people which, in case of unsustainable practices, could potentially result in the degradation of forests and ultimately in biodiversity loss and a reduction of carbon stocks and storage.


To meet the needs of a growing population, sustainable, climate-smart forest management is needed, considering carbon emissions and removals by all carbon pools simultaneously to optimize longer-term and larger mitigation benefits, while supporting biodiversity and other ecosystem services. Existing life cycle analyses of forest products indicate that the processing, manufacturing, use and disposal of wood products has climate-related impacts, as well as other environmental impacts related to eutrophication, acidification, photochemical oxidant formation and human toxicity. However, in the context of substitution, it is important not only to look at the impacts of products made from wood, but also at the impacts of a functionally equivalent product made from other materials. Substitution effects on environmental impacts other than climate are not well understood.


Existing outlooks for the future production of wood products suggest a steady increase in the production of industrial roundwood for sawnwood, wood panels, paperboard and packaging over the coming decades, for alternative global developments. However, there are many uncertainties surrounding these outlooks for future forest product supply and demand, such as changes in consumer behaviour and the future market uptake of innovative wood products. A key question is whether and how substitution by wood products would result in additional demand for roundwood. However, there is still limited understanding on substitution effects at market-, country- and worldwide level. For a holistic understanding of the benefits of substitution by wood products, we must also consider the effects on carbon storage in forest biomass, soil and wood products, as well as their permanence and potential leakage effects. Allocating large volumes of wood to specific applications will likely increase competition for raw materials and may lead even to negative substitution effects, i.e. wood products are substituted by other (non-renewable) products.


There are various examples of eco-design, cascaded use or waste management of wood products that can improve the functioning of the circular bioeconomy. Paper recycling is one such example and experiences in collection and recycling can provide insights for other forest products. However, to strengthen the role that forest products play in a circular bioeconomy, there is a need to improve the manufacturing (including eco-design), use, reuse and recycling of forest products, and the management of residues and waste to reduce the environmental impact over a product’s life cycle. To ensure the sustainability of a circular forest-based bioeconomy, it is important to develop awareness and overcome knowledge and implementation gaps along the global forest product value chain. To strengthen the contribution made by product substitution in a circular bioeconomy, recommendations are provided for specific actions that could be taken by the private sector, national governments, regional economic integration organizations, and through international cooperation bodies.


Among the 17 SDGs set by the United Nations (2015), Substitution of wood-based products for greenhouse gas-intensive products could contribute to a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action) and 15 (Life on Land). In addition to the SDGs, six Global Forest Goals have been set to contribute to the progress on the SDGs. Among the six Global Forest Goals, substitution can play a role in contributing to Global Forest Goal 2 (Enhance forest-based economic, social, and environmental benefits, including by improving the livelihoods of forest-dependent people).


Recommendations targeting the private sector

Focus on long-term responsible and sustainable production systems that contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Contribute to the improved understanding of how environmental impacts of forest products compare with products made from other materials.

Include sustainability considerations in the design of forest products that can remain in use as long as possible, aiming to take the environmental impacts of the products into account over their entire life cycle, and ensuring their reusability and recyclability.

Provide transparent and accurate information on climate and other environmental impacts over the entire product life cycle.

Invest to develop efficient production processes and technologies that optimize material use, prevent pollution, and reduce the environmental footprint of products.

Foster the substitution of fossil-based or GHG-intensive products by wood products (or other bio-based products) by avoiding intra-sectoral competition where forest products compete with other environmentally beneficial products, and by encouraging intra-sectoral collaboration.


Recommendations targeting national governments and regional economic integration organizations

Incentivize and encourage responsible production and consumption of sustainable biobased products and discourage the use of non-renewable, fossil-based and GHG-intensive products.

Consider the important role of forests and forest products in a functioning, circular bioeconomy, including carbon storage by forest ecosystems, carbon storage in wood products, product substitution effects and possible leakage effects.

Exclude actions that favour climate change mitigation locally but lead to deforestation or forest degradation elsewhere as a result of international trade.

Design and implement procurement procedures that prioritize sustainable products and services over other alternatives.

Facilitate development of efficient systems to reuse and recycle (forest) products and avoid landfilling.

Foster research activities to improve the understanding of substitution effects at product and market level for all product categories, all along the life cycle.

Strengthen cooperation between scientific, industrial and financing actors to achieve shorter technological innovation cycles.

Upgrade educational curricula at all levels to encourage sustainability thinking.

Develop training and capacity building for professionals to update their knowledge of climate-smart and sustainable options.

Improve consumer awareness by providing accurate and clear information on the possibilities and advantages of sustainable consumption patterns.


Recommendations targeting international cooperation bodies

Facilitate comparative studies and global data collection efforts for monitoring the bioeconomy to assess achievements and address knowledge and implementation gaps, to foster the transformation to a sustainable, circular bioeconomy.

Facilitate knowledge exchange to strengthen the capacity of countries and the private sectors in the transformation to a sustainable, circular bioeconomy by sharing technical knowledge, best practices, and innovations to mitigate climate change, prevent or reduce pollution, and to address other trade-offs.

Promote international partnerships between academia, industry, finance, and public administration to explore how the transformation to a sustainable, circular bioeconomy could be achieved.

Read more in the full study.

Tags: bioeconomy

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