Softwood forestry will boost our green credentials

The wood industry is a success story, says Stuart Goodall

Forestry is crucial to Scotlands world-leading climate change target. Picture: John Devlin

WHEN learning from mistakes, whether in business, government or other walks of life, a common refrain is that they/we should think more long-term.

Forestry and wood-using businesses naturally think over longer time scales, driven by the life cycle of a tree, which for softwoods is typically 35-50 years, and for hardwoods up to a 100 years or more.

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The sector has known for some years that it faces future difficulties, but Confor’s analysis of a recent forecast of wood availability makes for stark reading for anyone who cares about rural employment or efforts to combat climate change.

Forestry and wood processing is an integrated sector. Forest owners need a customer to buy their wood, and those customers need to know that there will be sufficient future supplies, not just to justify business investments lasting 15-20 years, but also for decades ahead, as Scotland’s wood processing sector is dominated by family-owned businesses. They want to know there is a sustainable resource for the next 50-100 years.

For over three years, Confor has been warning of the threat to this successful, low-carbon sector from a future falling away of supply and has demanded immediate action both to protect Scotland’s forests and to deliver successive government commitments to plant new forests.

Some action has been taken, and planting rates have increased, though not including the softwood resource that dominates activity in Scotland. Disturbingly, forest is still being cleared and not replanted.

Confor has been concerned for some time that the current process of forecasting wood availability only 25 years ahead has shielded politicians and policy-makers from unfortunate truths about future wood supply. More than two years ago, Confor approached the Forestry Commission and Scottish Enterprise, and requested that a longer 50 year forecast be prepared.

This has now been prepared and it makes for compelling reading, justifying Confor’s repeated warnings.

Initially the story is a positive one, with current levels of wood supply being surpassed for the next 20 years or so. However, supply then falls away dramatically from a peak of around 12.7 million cubic metres in 2030 to 9 million cubic metres in 2045 and to only 8 million in 2050.

This steep fall – the result of a lack of planting of softwood crops in the last 20 years – is even more dramatic when it is viewed in the context of a 100-year projection that the Forestry Commission also produced. While it is a UK projection, Scotland dominates the forestry sector and mirrors the UK-wide trend.

The projection shows a dangerous long-term “trough” in supply. Confor has analysed the potential economic and environmental impact of this trough – and the news isn’t good. That will have a huge impact on Scotland’s green targets and its future efforts to keep the economy in the black.

Our calculations suggest that a failure to fill the trough in supply could see the Scottish Government miss an opportunity to sequester a staggering 55 million tonnes of carbon and secure a minimum of 1,000 jobs.

Forestry is crucial to Scotland’s world-leading climate change targets, as planting trees soaks up carbon and creating wood products stores carbon. Ministers recognise forestry’s role in hitting environmental targets, as well as creating jobs in Scotland’s rural economy – and that’s why we are asking them to act now.

The Scottish Government has committed to planting 100,000 hectares of trees up to 2022, including 60,000 hectares of productive softwoods – the raw material for Scotland’s businesses and so many of the products in our everyday lives.

Confor has calculated that by extending the planting of 6,000ha a year of productive softwood forestry to 2042, Scotland can benefit from both an enormous contribution to carbon reduction targets, but also protect current levels of business activity in forestry and wood processing which is so vital to many rural areas.

Making – and delivering on – such a commitment would reap a massive reward. It is difficult to see where else such an enormous carbon bonus can come from, alongside protecting jobs that generally pay in comparison to other rural activities.

Forestry in Scotland is a tremendous success story, so let’s build on that success by increasing and maintaining productive planting now. Then we can reap the rewards of far-sighted policy over the decades to come. A sustainable wood supply creates confidence, which leads to investment. This is good for the economy, good for the environment – and good for Scotland.

• Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood

Confor is a partner in the conference, Building on Success: The future of forestry and timber in Scotland on 29 May