“If the 19th century was the era of steel and the 20th the era of concrete, the 21st will be the era of wood,” says Marc Palahí, director of the European Forest Institute.
Wood is poised to regain the throne it lost to industrialization, returning with strong arguments to back it up. Neus Puy, researcher of bioproducts and the circular bioeconomy at the Center for Forest Science and Technology of Catalonia (CTFC), especially highlights its “environmental properties, being renewable, biodegradable and neutral in greenhouse gas emissions”.
On the other hand, Jordi Gené, head of the Catalan Wood Institute (Incafust), points out its importance in “creating jobs in rural areas and managing forests to reduce the risk of fires”.
The possible applications of wood are many, and go far beyond its use as fuel or in the manufacture of pallets, which are its main uses today in Catalonia. “It is the most versatile material on the planet. In Japan, they even built a car out of wood,” explains Palahí.
Beyond wooden cars, the most promising fields for wood as a material are the construction sector, the textile industry and petrochemicals. “Everything that now requires oil can already be made, or will soon be made, with wood,” says the director of the European Forestry Institute.
The technology for all these uses is now available and viable: all that remains is for it to take off commercially. “The wood industries have invested in a massive amount of innovations over the last 20 years, which are now reaching industrial maturity, transforming the sector, revaluing timber lands and facilitating the monetization of natural carbon capture in forests,” says Mikael Jafs, co-manager of Pictet Timber.
Gené puts the figures on the table: “An increase in wood use of 30% is expected by 2030.” A growth that could be higher depending on the ambition of our governments, as is the case of the European Commission, which is currently reviewing the EU Forestry Strategy.
Thanks to a product known as cross-laminated wood (CLT), construction is one of the most advanced fields in this resurgence of wood. In a conference organized by the Ecological and Forestry Applications Research Centre (CREAF), CTFC researcher Adriano Raddi highlights the “huge opportunity” presented by the use of wood in buildings to improve energy efficiency and reduce CO2 emissions in the construction sector”, currently one of the sectors with the greatest environmental impact.
“For every ton of wood that replaces cement, we avoid emitting two tons of CO2,” says Raddi. Now it’s Jafs who puts the numbers on the table: “The CLT market is expected to grow by 15% annually and expand to $2.3 billion (about 1.9 billion euros, according to the current exchange rate) by 2025.”
For Catalonia, with 62.4% of its land forested, that resurgence of wood as a “super-material” is an economic opportunity. Currently, only 30% of the annual growth of forest material, which is three million cubic meters, is used.
In other words, forestry activity could stand to triple and, even so, forest growth would continue. Other challenges include the difficulties of working in the forest and a shortage of workers in the sector. But that’s already a different story.