UNECE: Wood energy on the rise in Europe
November 4, 2022
By United Nations Economic Commission for Europe
For many people in economically well-developed countries of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region a wood stove or fireplace used to be a cosy way to heat a room in the cold season. This winter, however, the role of wood energy may dramatically change for many people out of sheer necessity.
A large part of the UNECE region is increasingly exposed to highly volatile prices of heating oil, natural gas and coal, forcing vulnerable groups of the population to switch back from gas and electricity for heating and cooking to often inefficient and heavily polluting wood stoves.
This vulnerability exposes the urgent need for a faster transition to sustainable renewable energy sources, concluded participants of the 80th session of the Committee on Forests and the Forest Industry (COFFI), which is taking place from 2 to 4 November 2022. When properly chopped, stacked, stored, and given enough time to dry and burnt in a highly efficient stove, wood can be a climate friendly alternative with minimal emissions.
UNECE region dominates global trade in wood energy
COFFI highlighted that while the consumption of key wood-based products (pulp and paper, wood-based panels and sawn wood) now faced sharp declines due to the economic downturn, the wood energy markets (pellets and traditional fuelwood) are on a steep ascent.
Countries in the European Union (EU) burned about 23.1 million tonnes of wood pellets in 2021.It is expected that their consumption in 2022 will reach more than 24 million tonnes and increase even more in the future due to soaring fossil fuel prices and increased demand by individual households.
The UNECE region dominates the global trade in wood energy both as exporters (United States and Canada) and importers (United Kingdom). Some 10.6 million tonnes of chipped, dried, ground and uniformly compressed wood pellets were traded worldwide in 2021. Interestingly, the United Kingdom—as the biggest importer of wood pellets in the world—is also home to the biggest single consumer, a power plant which imported and burnt 7.8 million tonnes of wood pellets in 2021.
Burning wood does not necessarily cause deforestation
One of the main raw materials of the bioenergy sector is woody biomass. With this comes a widely held belief that wood energy is a major driver of deforestation. Yet, numbers suggest otherwise. A 2020 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that although about 45 per cent of forest area in the UNECE region was used primarily to produce wood and non-wood forest products, the forest area in the region continued to grow and so did the forest carbon stock.
Part of the explanation is that most of the wood used for energy production in the UNECE region does not even come directly from trees and forests but from by-products of the wood processing industries, such as bark, chips and particles to process heat, steam and/or electricity in the sawmills, pulp mills or panel mills. Moreover, it is usually lower quality tress that are cut down for energy generation, allowing high value trees to remain.
Managing forests to preserve and enhance their economic, social and environmental value for the benefit of present and future generations is a crucial pre-condition for wood energy to be sustainable and a low carbon substitute for fossil fuels. Only wood sourced from forests that ensure healthy and continued tree growth can be a fully renewable source of energy.
Wood energy is addressed in many aspects of the UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section’s work and specifically through the advisory work of the Team of Specialists on Wood Energy, the Joint Wood Energy Enquiry (which is a comprehensive database of wood energy and wood fuel data from UNECE member States), and publication of wood energy market information, such as the recurrent chapter in the Forest Products Annual Market Review.
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