The growing role of biodiversity and carbon storage: what to expect for the tissue sector
Business as usual, when utilising wood fibre is looking less likely for products such as tissue, as large policy readjustments for sustainability and forestry are currently taking place within the EU.
Tissue paper is a product used in the daily lives of billions of people around the globe for numerous hygienic and health purposes, and a paper grade that has more or less been in constant growth throughout the last few decades.
Volume-wise, few – if any – other paper grades have shown such resilience towards economic turbulence, and where growing and ageing populations combined with improved living standards have proved to be key drivers.
Most established tissue paper products are fibre-based, and wood fibre-based pulp dominates in the consumer tissue segment, while recovered fibre is primarily used in the AfH segment.
Although there are several initiatives and investments in “new” or “less traditional” sources, e.g. straw, bagasse or previously unutilised recovered paper sources, the tissue value chain looks to remain highly dependent on wood fibre for a long time to come.
Figure 1 indicates a global furnish mix in tissue products globally. The trend is towards more hardwood (BHKP), although softwood (BSKP), providing robustness and strength to the products, will remain important. European fibre baskets play an important role in fulfilling the wood fibre demand for both pulp grades, although primarily for softwood, where most of the fibre has its origin in the Nordics.
Wood fibre is a renewable and carbon neutral material and a cornerstone in phasing out fossil fuels and materials.
There are many great examples where wealthy and democratic economies go hand-in-hand with growing prosperous forests. Still, rarely has sustainability been such a hot topic for wood fibre value chains as today, where perhaps biodiversity and carbon storage are the most current issues. In a way, this is understandable as several motivated businesses are discovering the advantages that wood fibre brings when taking action for a green transition.
Despite the many sustainable aspects of wood fibre, there are examples of “near misses” and actual “causalities” of being promoted as a part of the strategy to phase out fossils.
Although not necessarily justified, negative aspects of wood fibre are being intensely promoted. Business as usual, when utilising wood fibre is looking to become a less likely event for a product like tissue, with a short life span and recycling challenges. Promoting the importance and advantages of wood fibre is becoming more important than ever.
One of the most significant policy readjustments for sustainability and forestry so far is currently taking place within the EU, where the outcome can affect each step of the wood fibre value chain and the supply of raw materials. Below, we examine a selection of recent policies and processes with the central topics of biodiversity, carbon storage and the potential impact on European wood fibre supply.
Current key policies
Numerous policies and initiatives connected to the forest sector and its resources are under revision within the EU; the Biodiversity Strategy, Forest Strategy, LULUCF, REDII/III, the Taxonomy Regulation, Sustainable Carbon Cycles, Carbon Border Adjustment and the Deforestation Regulation, among others. Each policy has its timeline, and the potential impact on the wood fibre supply chain can differ.
Biodiversity: Policies aimed at maintaining and strengthening biodiversity in the forest ecosystem are the Biodiversity and the Forest Strategy, the latter built upon the former. The main objective of the Biodiversity Strategy is to protect 30% of the land and 30% of the sea area within the EU. Of each of these 30% shares, at least 10% should be strictly protected, as illustrated in Figure 2. Legally binding nature restoration targets have also been introduced through this strategy.
According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), 26% of the EU land area is currently protected. However, the share varies greatly among member states, largely due to variations in protection definitions. Also, the share of strictly protected areas is not yet quantified. This implies that some countries would have to increase their protected areas, for instance, the Nordic countries, which currently protect almost 15% (Sweden and Finland), according to the EEA.
Some EU countries, like Germany, might not fulfil the strict protection target, even though the overall protection target is fulfilled, and therefore needs to increase the strict protection share. In either of the cases, this will likely restrict harvesting and harvesting potential if implemented.
As the Forest Strategy is built upon the Biodiversity Strategy, the main objective is to enhance biodiversity as well as contribute to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It promotes the use of wood fibre for long-lived products, rather than short-lived ones such as tissue, but also the usage of continuous cover forestry and re-forestation. Wood fibre supply chains in many European countries are largely built on forestry without constant cover.
In addition to these policies, the new EU Deforestation Regulation, also aimed at safeguarding biodiversity, will increase the need for fibre traceability through the value chain. In practice, the location of where the wood fibre was harvested needs to be reported for products entering or leaving the EU market.
Carbon storage: Policies aimed at carbon storage might also restrict the wood fibre supply in Europe through decreased harvesting levels. The main policies connected to this topic are the LULUCF and the Sustainable Carbon Cycles policy. The LULUCF Regulation is aimed at incentivising member states to decrease emissions and increase the removals of greenhouse gases from managed lands (agriculture, forestry, etc.).
A revision of the current LULUCF Regulation was agreed upon at the end of 2022, which will further enhance the role of forests in carbon removals. From 2026 onwards, carbon removals generated by forests and other managed land have to be larger than the emissions from these lands. Each member state will also have removal targets to be delivered by 2030. As forests are the main sink of the LULUCF sector and the forest sink is initially reduced through tree harvesting, some member states have the pressure to decrease harvesting levels if there are no other ways to reach the removal targets set by the EU.
In addition, the Sustainable Carbon Cycles policy aims to promote carbon removal activities in businesses primarily through creating a voluntary carbon market. In such a market, forest owners could theoretically sell carbon credits from standing forests instead of wood fibre from harvested forests. Such a market would be a direct competitor to wood fibre resource sourcing.
In all, the above-stated policies can affect the wood fibre supply and production of tissue in Europe through:
Increased forest protection (less land available for forestry)
Changed forest management practices unsuitable for current practices (continuous cover forestry instead of final felling)
Promotion of long-lived products instead of short-lived ones
Increased need for supply chain traceability
Decreased national harvesting levels (to maintain carbon removals on managed lands)
Competing demand for forest resources (from emerging carbon credit markets)
Production leakage through shifted production from Europe to other parts of the world
The accelerating trend for more hardwood in tissue furnish (primarily eucalyptus)
The road ahead
Even though there are numerous policies on the table, it is not certain if or to what extent the wood fibre availability will be affected, as many of the processes are in the making. Still, there are clouds on the horizon for the industry where awareness, precautions and measures become key. Potential actions and areas to address are elaborated below.
Sourcing: As mentioned above, the relatively short life span of tissue products vs. wood fibre brings challenges as new policy frameworks are produced. Although active and wealthy forestry can be an enabler for improved growth and carbon storage, it is hard to see that other “less traditional” fibre sources will not be an increasingly important part of the tissue furnish equation ahead.
Optimised sourcing and less waste are actual and ongoing steps, but so are initiatives and experimenting with new sources, both virgin fibre based and recycled. There are potentials and examples in collecting and recycling certain tissue grades as well as exploring new RCP sources, e.g. cartonboards — areas where the tissue sector can potentially do more with the right partnership and dedication.
Join forces: With the sizeable revision and work taking place, the need for knowledge is of great importance. Industrial sectors dependent on virgin wood fibre have experience in cooperation on political and informative tasks, although, to a large extent, mainly within its respective sector, value chain and associations. The time to join forces, cooperate cross-functionally and focus on the common touch and pain points is more important than ever.
For instance, one of the greatest challenges in the sustainability framework is developing and refining indicators, metrics and methodologies to measure progress towards company targets. Knowledge is key in such development work. However, knowledge not shared, informed and communicated correctly to political decision-makers in processes like the ones mentioned above is of little use, unfortunately.
Openness: There are learnings and areas of improvement in current forestry methods, and lessons are constantly learnt as biodiversity and carbon storage are taken more seriously than ever in Europe. For example, forestry based on final felling and continuous cover forestry are often opposed to each other as there is only one option.
Simplified, while final felling provides wood fibre from a limited land area but with a visible footprint, continuous cover forestry demands more land to produce the same amount of wood fibre but with a less visible footprint.
Each of the two systems, and the practices between them, can be suitable depending on local conditions and new solutions, technology and enablers (e.g. drones and improved data utilisation) are entering the market. Although traditional methods might as well be the correct way in many cases, openness and willingness to reconsider, fine-tune and challenge are key.
Promote: Biodiversity and carbon storage are complex topics, forming the new frontier in future forest sustainability management together. As with many frontier investments, experiments are needed to find new solutions. With uncertainty, new opportunities come. Businesses willing to act now rather than later will stand a great chance to shape the path.
This article was originally published on the Tissue World Magazine website on 13 February 2023.