Will Europe's forest and its firewood help Europe through the winter?

July 21, 2022

How will we get through the winter with the looming gas crisis looming? The European Commission wants European countries to start using less gas as soon as possible. Among other measures, it is also looking at an all-time energy reserve that is available in rural areas of Europe: wood. At present, there is an astonishingly large growing stock of wood of 26 billion m3 available there. A larger reserve than at any time since the Middle Ages, steadily built up since the Second World War. Is wood really a suitable alternative energy source? How much energy does it provide? Will Europe's forests suffer from a sudden increase in timber harvesting?

To answer these questions, it is useful to look at some data. At present, EU forests have a net growth of just over 800 million m3 per year. Only 500 million m3 is harvested, mainly industrial roundwood for construction and the production of furniture and paper.

However, there is still a relatively large proportion of non-commercial firewood in the annual harvest: some 120 million m3 per year (see Figure 1). Non-commercial means that it is often produced by the approximately 20 million small private forest owners who produce it from their own estates and for their own use or the local market. These private forest owners own about 40% of the European forests. The commercial market for firewood (pellets and regional market chips) is still relatively small; about 20 million tonnes of pellets are produced. Together, these two produce about 60% of all renewable energy in Europe, or about 7% of total energy use (all sectors including transport and industry).

 Non commercial (i.e. local) fuelwood harvesting in EU countries since 1960s. Currently this harvest amounts to some 120 million m3, supplying some 40 million households with direct heating (source FAO)
Non commercial (i.e. local) fuelwood harvesting in EU countries since 1960s. Currently this harvest amounts to some 120 million m3, supplying some 40 million households with direct heating (source FAO)

But is it possible to get Europe through the winter on wood? No, we can be clear about that, it is not possible. Simply because the energy market is very diverse with many forms of raw materials as input and because our energy consumption is enormous. So what is possible?

Figure 1 shows that non-commercial production of firewood has gradually increased over the last few decades. We also know that firewood prices have already doubled in the last year, and more anecdotal information says that the harvest has increased. How much the price has risen recently is difficult to say, as it takes a few years to gather these statistics. This information is usually made as part of the national forest inventories, but these always have a delay of a few years before the most recent trends become visible.

What certainly happens when energy supplies become very tight is that forest owners harvest more. Even if the wood is not completely dried, it ends up in stoves, mostly in rural areas. Whether that will be an additional harvest of 30 million or 100 million m3, no one can say at the moment. But the capacity and the facilities are there, and for a while, part of the domestic heating can be covered.

For the European forests, a one-off additional harvest of 100 million m3 is not a problem. That would still be covered by sustainability requirements of national laws and, for example, certification schemes such as FSC and PEFC. European forests could thus cover 10-12% of total energy consumption for a while. This could be crucial in times of very tight energy supply. So, without burning up all the forests, we see that forests are again a strategic reserve. A reserve that has been storing the energy generated by the sun in its wood for the past 7-8 decades.