POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - INSTITUTIONS

Essay

Between a tree and a leafy place: the future of wood



Luxembourg has 90,000 hectares of forest, 64% of which is hardwood and 54% of which is privately owned. Photo: Maison Moderne

Luxembourg has 90,000 hectares of forest, 64% of which is hardwood and 54% of which is privately owned. Photo: Maison Moderne

In our attempts to salvage the environment and to inaugurate more sustainable futures, wood--eco-friendly, carbon-positive wood--has emerged as a meaningful material. But the discussion goes much deeper than “Use more wood!”

Together with the ocean, trees are arguably the most-toted icons of environmentalism. The universes lurking deep undersea and in the heart of wild forests represent the spaces on Earth farthest, at least in our imaginations, from anthropic influence. They are ecosystems full of bewondering secrets, and in an era where humanity represents the death of the natural world by plastic and pollutants, they are more sacred than ever.

And it isn’t only in this age of the Anthropocene--that in which humankind’s mark on the planet has become irreversible--that forests have been special. The Western popular imaginary has long held them as realms of mystery, from the thirteenth-century Breton lai Sir Orfeo, in which Orfeo’s wife is kidnapped by a faery king deep in the woods, to the Forbidden Forest of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where unicorns, giant spiders and other remarkable things--remarkable even to witches and wizards--reside.

These are the cultural contexts in which ordinary people in Luxembourg see their forests. Accordingly, when a tree is felled, a fuss is made. Locals will even call the authorities when they see a tree being chopped down, according to anecdotal evidence given to me by Michel Dostert of Lëtzebuerger Privatbësch, a nonprofit that advises private forest owners.

And the law is on the side of ordinary people. Even when a tree isn’t felled illegally, there is a minefield of other infractions that workers might commit. The government has lately ramped up nature protection policies as well as the penalties for destroying parts of forest ecosystems, to the point where many contractors and experts break the law without knowing it. For example: if you fell a single tree and consequently vary the sunlight situation in a way that threatens a protected species of moss, that’s a crime. The message remains, and remains simple: forests are precious.

And yet…

The symbolic value of trees is something that wood industry professionals understand differently, however. Dostert points out that folks can’t have their cake and eat it too, i.e. have wood as a sustainable construction material but not cut down any trees to get it. “People will walk a forest path every day or three times a week, and maybe once in five years this path will be blocked for harvesting operations,” he says. “But still they feel very disturbed by it. And then they’ll contact the [Nature and Forest Agency] and say: ‘They’re destroying the forest!’”

Corinne Brever, director of the Éislek-based Bois Brever sawmill, has a similar take: “The forest is considered to be a place where people can spend their free time. They want to go there to do some mountain biking or to walk their dog. But on the other hand, they want their nice wooden table or a wooden roof on their house…”

Accordingly, Dostert has observed a trend whereby private forest owners choose to do nothing with their forests. “It’s very romantic for a lot of people,” he says, referring to the idea of leaving wildlands untouched by humans. “But if we want to produce this material [wood] here, then we need to actively manage the forest in order to get it.” After all, he points out, what’s the alternative? Importing wood from places like Africa or Russia? Not only would that incur carbon costs in the transport process, but it would also support industries that are likely to be underregulated.

“If we cut down a tree,” adds Brever, “it’s to build a house that is ecologically friendly.”

Brever certainly wouldn’t mind being able to buy more local wood. “It would be interesting for us to buy smaller quantities from private owners,” she says. She explains that the advantage is that Bois Brever’s main competitors, Belgian and French sawmills, are too huge to find such minor deals lucrative. Plus, she adds, “Luxembourg is small so transport is short, and usually these trees are very good quality.”

Indeed, the tension between visions of pristine forestland and the desire for organic building materials is a contradictory one. And the story of this tension is still in its ascending phase, with public opinion, government action, marketplace realities and climate instability all intensifying in their voices.

In the marketplace

Demand for wood seems to be healthy. According to the wood cluster of Luxinnovation, the proportion of wood (versus other materials) used in the grand duchy’s construction industry is projected to rise to 13% in 2025, compared to 10% now and 6% in 2016, suggesting that we are amidst an upward trend. Stephan Hostert, managing director of construction service provider Steffen Holzbau, confirms that wood and sustainability “are more and more important in building”, while the government is openly pushing for its use: various subsidies are on offer to promote the use of wood for energy and building purposes, while in May a new incentive for private forest owners to practise sustainable forest management--i.e. to sell their wood (responsibly)--was announced. The government’s new Eist Holz (“Our Wood”) promotional brand also highlights the link between forests and wood.

The trajectory isn’t as straightforward as rising numbers and interest, however. Small and medium European sawmills experienced a beyond-the-curve explosion in demand this year: in February, production problems in Canada induced the US to buy timber from Europe at exorbitant rates--up to €800 per m³, where about €300 is average--which left a vacuum in the European market. “We had ten times more work than during normal times,” says Brever. “It’s just crazy. We are too small for the number of orders that we’re getting.” In Europe, prices hit the €1,000 mark before starting to fall.

Such volatility is, of course, down to global warming and its knock-on effects: the Canadian province of British Columbia had been scourged by bark beetles and wildfires for ten years, culminating in the supply crisis in the US.

Demand is thus unlikely to fall, but supply remains a concern because of beetles, weather or simply the number of wooded hectares. “Will we have enough wood left in 50 years’ time?” asks Brever. “That’s maybe one problem: that the demand for sawn timber exceeds the actual wood that’s in the forest. That’s a fear that I have.” She stipulates that her fear isn’t based on any scientific forecast. And currently, more wood is grown in Luxembourg annually than is harvested (760,000 m³ versus 500,000 m³), meaning that there is nothing to panic about--there are laws about replacing felled trees--but, true, rising demand will put pressure on this differential.

Species mismatch

The bark beetles, sadly, are not only a footnote in cases of market volatility; they are no strangers to Luxembourg, where they have been thriving thanks to dry springtime weather and hot summers. Their favourite meal is spruce, which incidentally is the most important commercial wood in the region. Bois Brever, one of two sawmills in the grand duchy, doesn’t process anything except spruce. “All of our customers buy spruce,” says Brever. “It’s the most commonly used construction timber. It grows very fast and you can use 100% of it.”

But the popularity of this softwood introduces another element of public opinion (besides a general mood of protectionism): spruce is not native to the grand duchy, whose local ecosystem is, treewise, naturally composed of hardwoods like oak or beech. Beyond a romantic--to borrow Doster’s word--attachment to native species, there are several reasons to be upset about the proliferation of spruce. For one thing, Luxembourg is so spruce-crazed that nobody here is even capable of processing hardwood, most of which ends up getting exported to China on container ships. (“A shame,” says Dostert.) For another, spruce is more vulnerable to bark beetles because it’s an outsider in this bioregion.

Obviously, we can’t abandon spruce overnight in favour of native varieties, since the economic demand for it remains high while the infrastructure to process hardwood, which grows much more slowly, doesn’t even exist. Plus, discussions of forests require large timescales: spruce is now prevalent partly because everyone was planting it after World War II as an investment in their retirement. But its vulnerability has problematised its ubiquity, leading some German firms to begin conducting research on how to process hardwood.

The quagmire here is thus the following: economic demand for softwood is rising, for legitimate reasons, yet public demand for hardwood is rising, and also for legitimate reasons.

Is wood the answer?

So which futures are possible, in terms of Luxembourg’s forests and the sustainability of its building practices? There is some comfort in knowing that the wooded proportion of the country has remained stable for the last two decades, in spite of growing demand (and production).

It also sounds like the laws are not outpacing the industry, even if more acts are criminalised than forestry workers tend to realise. For instance, since 2018 clear-cutting has been banned except for small areas (half a hectare), so the extraction of wood is happening predominantly via thinning, the strategic removal of a tree here, a tree there. Thinning remains a viable business activity (worth from €1,000 to €2,000 per hectare of coniferous forest every ten years) and it alters the ecosystem rather than destroying it outright. Plus, by law you have to replant what you take. 

Yet the “circularity” of the process is also a bit of a mirage. Statec numbers show that Luxembourg’s forests are getting sicker by the year: in 1986, 77% of trees were in perfect health while today that number is just 14%, due to air pollution and global warming. Meanwhile, the OECD reports that the grand duchy’s biodiversity has been worsening for 40 years: Luxembourg’s protected areas “have obviously not succeeded in halting the decline in biodiversity,” it said in its 2020 environmental performance report. On a global scale, 100 countries have recently recognised the urgency of the situation by pledging, at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. These linear trends confuse the simple idea of one-tree-out, one-seed-in.

In other words, replacing a mature tree with a seedling is not quite a “circular” activity in a true sense.

In holistic terms, wood’s role in the modern age is so obvious that it might serve as a bellwether for the feasibility of other “circular” futures: instead of increasing wood production to meet demand, will it be possible to lower demand to meet output levels that are ecologically responsible? I.e., to let the health of the forests decide how much wood we use (while not running to eco-unfriendly materials to fill the gap)? This is the kind of shift in business thinking that wood desires of us.

People are calling wood a hot commodity, and while that is broadly correct the sector is also anomalous. Ironically, it may not be a “growth” sector in the traditional sense. In fact, Brever is tuned into the reality that little innovation is required within it: essentially, harvesting wood has been working well for a long time. “Wood can be the answer,” she reasons… “because it has always been kind of an answer.”