Can’t see the wood for the trees – UW GROUP

Can’t see the wood for the trees

With the UK currently importing over 80% of its wood requirement, Confor, the trade association for the UK forestry industry, warns that we could be sleepwalking into a timber shortage crisis. Stuart Goodall puts the case for planting more trees for timber production.

It should be concerning to everyone when a mature economy with the perfect conditions for growing a wide range of tree species should be in a potentially precarious position in relation to wood supply. But that’s exactly where we find ourselves.

For decades we have failed to invest adequately in our domestic wood supply, leaving us exposed to fluctuating prices and fighting for future supplies of wood as global demand rises and our own supplies fall.

The UK is the world’s second largest importer of wood after China, importing around £7.5bn-worth of timber annually. We currently grow only around 20% of our wood requirement, leaving us exposed to a very significant balance (80%) needing to be imported from other countries.

In 2020 the UK imported 48 million cubic metres of wood products, of which 22% was sawn wood and wood-based panels destined for use by the building and construction industry. By 2021 this had increased by 15%, with the UK importing an average of one million cubic metres of timber and panel products every month – an unprecedented occurrence according to Timber Development UK, a new trade body created by the merger in 2021 of the Timber Trade Federation and the Timber Research and Development Association.

Specifically, softwood import volumes increased by over 21%, hardwoods by 26% and plywoods by over 13%, demonstrating increased demand even during ongoing Covid restrictions.

Beyond the UK, the World Bank estimates that global demand for wood products will treble in less than 30 years as the world population grows from its present 7.8 billion to 10 billion by 2050. This huge increase is being driven primarily by higher living standards, greater urbanisation – including China’s seemingly inexhaustible need for timber for both construction and manufacturing – and greater use of what is increasingly seen as a more sustainable building material.

These trends are being compounded at a time when a number of other global developments are coalescing. In particular, security of supply of natural resources is under ever greater threat from geo-political upheavals, as witnessed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and soaring energy prices.

While the UK may not be directly affected by Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine – overall Russian timber imports into the UK are relatively small at only 1.25%  – Russia remains the world’s largest supplier of timber globally.

With potentially longer-term economic sanctions placed against Russian exports, there will inevitably be significant disruption to supply chains, price hikes and pressure on countries typically supplied by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, to seek building material imports from other sources – including those Scandinavian countries that the UK relies upon so heavily.

In addition to being the largest overall exporter of wood products, Russia is also the largest exporter of sawn timber. Although the UK only imports 6% of its sawn softwood and 7% of its plywood from Russia, the impact on the UK’s building and construction sector will be much wider, as the overall global availability of wood products will be reduced and competition likely to intensify considerably.

Even before the Russian invasion, 2021 was a year when demand for wood outstripped supply and timber prices rose significantly (with imported sawn or planed wood jumping by more than a fifth during the summer) leading to an increase in construction costs and delays in completing projects.

The National Federation of Builders called for ministers to step in and urge councils to show greater flexibility on materials changes, while the Building Back Britain Commission warned in November that the government’s housebuilding targets might be at risk.

Timber prices, for instance, are spiking because of the switch in demand towards lower-density housing over city centre apartments, with more wood needed for elements such as roof joists.

To add to potential supply chain woes, there also remains some uncertainty of supply due to Brexit. New regulations and disrupted shipments can mean materials from overseas are often delayed or challenging to source. Labour shortages have also played a part, including the lack of HGV drivers.

While the upward trend in UK and global demand for wood is clear, the UK government’s own forecasts show that supplies of home-grown wood will start to decline in the 2030s, meaning there will be less wood available in future than there is now.

This can only have a detrimental impact on the UK’s plan to become net zero by 2050. The journey towards net zero is, in part, dependent on the greater sequestration of carbon dioxide for which productive tree-planting in the UK can make a significant contribution.

For many people, tree-planting is the obvious response to global warming and there’s good reason for that. Wood is a truly sustainable resource; not only is it a readily available substitute for many materials that have much higher emissions loads – such as brick, concrete, steel and polyurethane – but the tree from which it comes sequesters large amounts of CO2 as it grows.


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