The first All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPGF&TP) of 2021 met online last month to hear ‘why the UK must use more wood’. Carolyne Locher reports.

HOST David Lee opened the hour by introducing Group Chair Ben Lake MP.

Welcoming all, Lake reminded us that at the last meeting, Tom Barnes, managing director of Vastern Timber, called for links to be made between ambitious tree-planting targets, the management of existing woods and the greater use of home-grown timber. “All three are needed if we are to derive the important potential for our economy, society and the environment, especially in a year that sees the UK hosting COP26 in Glasgow, where the focus will be on meeting the global climate challenge,” he said.

“The Climate Change Committee recommendation is that from 2025, at the latest, as many new homes as possible should be timber framed. Where will this wood come from? Government will look to address this in the new England Tree Strategy and we will wait to hear what is said in that document. We will hear today if this group needs to do more to flag up future demand for more wood.”

The first presentation, ‘Using more wood: Big opportunities and bigger rewards’ was given by Paul Brannen, former MEP for North East England, now director of public affairs at CEI-Bois and EOS (the bodies representing European woodworking and sawmilling industries).

Offering a largely European perspective, Brannen referred to Bill Gates’ new book How to Avoid the Climate Disaster, specifically carbon emissions from the production of steel and cement. Brannen said: “Egypt’s current population, 100 million (with half under the age of 25), is set to rise to 160 million by 2060. Where will they live? They have a large building programme underway using steel, cement, brick and block.

“Housing a growing global population using these traditional building methods, we will not meet our global climate targets. The only material that can substitute the carbon emissions of cement, steel, brick and block is wood. Where there is a threat, there is opportunity.”

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There are two opportunities to create a carbon sink within the built environment: using timber products in new builds and using wood products in retrofitting/renovating existing housing stock to make them more energy efficient.

The European Commission actively supports the use of wood. “The ‘Renovation Wave’ sees 35 million homes made more energy efficient over the next 10 years. The 3-S Framework – Sequestration (trees); Storage (timber products); Substitution (replace cement, steel, brick-and-block) – supports new builds, as does the EU Commissioners’ own initiative, the ‘New European Bauhaus’: Beautiful, Sustainable Together. Togetherness is about accessibility, affordability and prefabrication offsite can help in this.“

Forestry Journal: There are concerns home-grown timber is too readily dismissed as unsuitable for house building.There are concerns home-grown timber is too readily dismissed as unsuitable for house building.

Professor Hans Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research has said: “A second carbon sink can be established in the built environment”. The first carbon sink is in forests and Europe needs to double its forest cover. Research has explored the potential to store carbon in new builds, but there is none that has looked into the potential of storing carbon through retrofitting/renovating existing buildings disproportionately using wood-based products.

The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe. “In the UK, we talk of retrofitting,” said Brannen. “There is a market in wood fibre to insulate lofts or replacing single-pane windows with double glazing and wooden window frames.”

In Europe, Finland leads the way. By 2023, the government will have a law, The Reformed Land Use and Building Act, requiring new buildings to be constructed to standards that sets limits on the carbon footprint of the building. It is believed that this legislation will reduce the carbon footprint of larger and public buildings by between 20 and 30% (single family homes are exempt). “How the targets are met is up to the architect or building firm. Using wood accelerates the chance of meeting them.”

At COP 26 (November), a ‘Green Zone’ will (hopefully) host a wooden pavilion showcasing different types of engineered timber.

Brannen concluded: “There are many opportunities to build in wood, both in new buildings and to renovate or retrofit old stock. Off-site production is part of what we can offer. All can substitute carbon-intensive materials. Adding everything together, the CO2 already stored in European building stocks, in new builds and through renovation, it is a big win for the climate and for the industry.”

Dan Ridley-Ellis, associate professor and head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, offered an academic perspective with his presentation, ‘Why using wood is so exciting – for our economy and environment’.

 “How we think, talk and value timber impacts what we can and cannot do with wood,” he said. “CO2 sequestration is important, but the main reason we grow trees is that we need the wood. Sequestration is one of several additional benefits.”

The UK produces 10–12 million cubic metres of wood a year, “enough to build a timber-framed house in a minute, or a CLT timber-framed house in three minutes. To meet house-building targets in wood, we need grow a house in less than two minutes. Except, we need wood for many other things.

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“When stating ‘high value’ and ‘low value’, ‘high quality’ or ‘low quality’, what we really mean is ‘suitable’ or ‘not suitable’ for a certain use.

“For every tall building built with CLT, there are also low-rise houses. All the wood needed to repair existing buildings, for fencing, for energy, for pallets that move 98 per cent of goods around the world, is also of value. For all the timber we need for housing, we will also need it for other things, and wood fibre for providing the potential for plastic replacements, for example.”

Currently, 20 per cent of UK consumption is met by home-grown wood. “If we met current ambitious planting targets solely with conifer, we would not be sufficient in softwood for 200 years,” said Ridley-Ellis. This does not include increasing amounts of wood in construction and for other things. “The challenge is going to be maintaining current levels. Productivity improvements can be made, but we already do much with reducing waste, reusing and recycling. We are going to need a lot more from our forests. Even at a European level, we are close to what is considered a sustainable capacity.

“Wood is renewable but not unlimited. Set against a global increase in demand, dismissing home-grown timber, saying ‘it grows too fast’, meaning its low density makes it unsuitable for building, is wrong. Growth speed does not affect density, and density does not correlate to strength and stiffness. Home-grown timber is suitable for much of our construction as long as we do not over-specify the grades needed. Use wood that is good enough. Using wood way better than it needs to be is wasteful.”

Forestry Journal: Using timber to sequester carbon in buildings – the future for housing in Britain?Using timber to sequester carbon in buildings – the future for housing in Britain?

In summary, he said: “We need to prepare for this new resource. It takes time to grow and for us to adapt and we need to get started. Not everything planted now will magically become useful timber. We must not put all our effort into the novelty side of innovation or miss simple solutions, and right now the basics are missing: the link between tree planting and wood use. Finally, be careful of the perceptions we create with our words, especially the perception in our own heads.”

Jasper Meade, director of PYC Group (a timber-frame housebuilding construction company) and board member of Woodknowledge Wales, outlined ‘Why our business needs more wood’.

“We buy lots of European timber,” he said. “The process is easy and offers good credit terms. Procuring Welsh timber, you have to think about it and plan ahead. Credit terms are not always favourable for a construction company. This is changing. Sourcing timber from our own country is the sustainable, sensible way forward.

“Post Brexit, we have had shocking difficulty in getting European timber and prices have increased. In the last three years, we have seen a 25 per cent increase in costs.”

PYC Group has enjoyed success using UK timbers, but incorporates imported timber because of the demand. “The future is self-sufficiency and we need to move towards forest cover at European levels (of 37 per cent). We can do this. The organisations are there to help us move forwards and it will take time. Taking the approach of using timber to sequester carbon in buildings, that is the future for housing in Britain.”

Caroline Ayre, Confor’s national manager for England, summed up: “We need to link planting and establishment with increased management of existing woodlands and wood use: a ‘seed to sawmill’ approach.

“Why is it such a challenge to make a solid link between tree planting, wood management and wood use? Demand for wood is increasing. Are politicians and civil servants building this into policy-making? Are they advocating the urgent need for stable wood production in tandem with sustainable food production? The language around the next round of land use support would strongly suggest not.”

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“In the race to plant, we need to change perception and language. Rather than ‘planting’, promote ‘tree establishment’ – planting with purpose – so that timber production is supported and promoted by government.”

Closing the event, Ben Lake MP said: “There is a real chance for forestry in this year of COP26. I will do my best to ensure the voice of industry is heard in parliament. Government plans will raise the demand for timber in construction. It is important to gauge how the increased demand will be met. I propose the APPG write to Minister of Forestry Lord Goldsmith setting out what we have discussed today and ask his views on whether government has any plans or consideration for greatly increased demands for timber. It is incredibly valuable that we have these webinars. Thank you for attending and I look forward to seeing you again.”


Q. Lord Carrington: “How do you make it economically attractive for farmers in lowland England to put trees into their rotation now?”

A. Carolyne Ayres: “The new England Woodland Creation offer should go live in May and we will have the England Tree Strategy. There is still consideration for increasing payments and longer timescales, but also the option of using improved stock. Incentives must be loaded at the front end.”

Q. “Are you hopeful that in discussions surrounding the development of ELMS, forestry is starting to get a place at the table?”

A. CA: “It is, but I would like sustainable wood production seen in tandem with food production, so that whenever you hear ‘agricultural production’ you hear ‘fibre production’.”

A comment from Luke Hemmings, Forestry Commission: “Is government aware that the types of trees and forests needed to meet timber house-building goals are those that RSPB and other groups campaign against?”

Q. “Planting a small wood on a farm, what should you be planting?”

A. Jasper Meade: “A mix. We use multiple timbers. Any planting scheme should incorporate 4 or 5 species of softwood plus hardwoods where possible. We use Douglas fir, Western red cedar, larch, oak, ash and poplar.”

Q. Baroness Young: “What is the future market for native hardwoods?”

A. JM: “Oak is great for building but we will not see a return on an investment in our (or our children’s) lifetimes if we plant oak. Consider ‘deciduous’ being the definition rather than ‘hardwood’. Although it has a disease problem, larch gives biodiversity in woodland.”

Q. “Which timber products deliver the greatest climate change mitigation? How can we drive change in the construction sector to incorporate these into new designs? Can timber compete on price?”

A. Dan Ridley-Ellis: “Price is the most important wood property. Properties are governed by the way trees grow through forest management. Include a more diverse range of softwood species into the value streams we already have. Hardwood could go into products ordinarily made with spruce. Effort must be put into ‘circularity’ and ‘end of life’.”

A. Paul Brannen: “Construction and possibly furniture store carbon the longest: long-life harvested wood products. EU legislation, ‘Land use and Land use Change in Forestry’ (LULUCF, signed up to by the UK government in the last parliament) incentivises using wood in construction. New builds account for 1–2 per cent of the market each year. Renovation/retrofitting is a far larger market to perpetually store CO2 in the built environment. We need research into the potential of the existing building stock to store carbon through a disproportionate use of wood-based renovation/retrofitting products.”

Q. “Will we be forced to continue importing more timber if we over-specify? Do we need to change those specifications? Which strategy gives the greatest benefit to the forest sector, the manufacturing sector and carbon reduction?”

A. DR-E: “In the UK, C16 and C24 are the commonly specified timber grades used. C24 is seen as ‘high-quality’, C16 ‘low-quality’. Both are at the low end of the scale. C16 are properties suited to timber grown in the UK: C24 is timber that historically we have imported. Twenty years ago BRE showed that we could build six-storey buildings with C16 homegrown timber. C16 is fine for many things. There is work to do to get the higher grades out of spruce (and other species). It is a mistake to specify higher grades where they are not needed.”

Q. “On cross-laminated timber, would government interventions to increase UK timber in construction best be shaped by subsidy, for example on domestic CLT supply chains, or should it be in taxes on carbon-intensive materials? How do you get that balance of policy intervention?”

A. PB: “Be wary of subsidy. They can have unintended consequences, distorting the work of the markets. The Finnish approach is open and transparent. Commissioners of a new building know exactly what the carbon footprint is going to be. In England and Wales, the nearest we have is getting an energy performance certificate when buying a house to see its energy use going forward. Wood is lighter than cement and steel. Site deliveries for wood-based construction can mean 9–10 times fewer lorries than when using heavier materials, reducing air pollution. Nobody bears the cost to the health service for the air pollution that comes from using heavy materials on a construction site. Until we can factor in the full environmental cost of a building and make full and transparent comparisons between materials used, people cannot make a judgement.”

Q. “Why has short-rotation coppice not taken off?”

A. CA: “We import much of that material. It comes down to the lack of infrastructure and the cost of getting it to market.”

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