By Aaron Labaree
The biggest wildfire in 20 years in Spain’s Catalonia region began on June 26, when a pile of chicken manure, baking in record high temperatures, burst into flames.
Fed by strong winds, the flames spread quickly, igniting dry brush and pine forest. In three days the fire burned more than 16,000 acres, and it took more than 500 firefighters to put it out.
Fires in California and the Amazon rainforest have grabbed attention, but large areas of Europe’s forests also were consumed this summer. Blazes nearly the size of the one in Catalonia tore through Spain’s Canary Islands, the south of France and the Greek islands of Evia and Samos.
From January to mid-October, the European Union has had almost triple the average number of wildfires for the same period over the past decade, with more than 800,000 acres burned so far this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.
Heat waves like the ones Europe experienced in 2019 are far more likely to happen because of the changing climate. And hot, dry conditions contribute to making massive fires no longer just a southern European problem: Last year Sweden saw its biggest fires in modern history, and this year the United Kingdom had a record number of them.
Now, like in the United States, firefighters and ecologists in Europe are starting to realize that putting out each fire isn’t possible or desirable. To prevent megafires, experts say, the authorities have to let forests burn naturally — and sometimes even set fires on purpose.
“We need to learn to live with fire, the same way we do with tornadoes or snowstorms,” says Marc Castellnou, chief analyst for a special forest unit of Catalonia’s fire services, known by its Catalan initials GRAF.
The wildfire problem is partly a result of decades of prevention. Fire plays a natural role in a healthy forest, burning away brush, dead trees and plant debris, while leaving many mature trees alive. But to protect human habitation, officials have tried to allow almost no fires to burn. The result is forests that are packed with undergrowth providing kindling and enormous unbroken stocks of trees to burn — megafires waiting to happen.
Europe’s forests have reached this dangerous state for another reason not seen in the U.S.: rural abandonment.
“When I was growing up, all of this was harvest — hazelnuts and olives,” says Rut Domènech, a forest expert who lives in Ribera d’Ebre, the county in Catalonia’s Tarragona province where the recent fires took place, pointing at what is now continuous forest. In the 1950s, the price of these and other crops plummeted with international competition and farmers were forced to move to cities.
Over much of Europe, rural abandonment has led to once-cultivated fields being given back to nature. In the 50 years after World War II, Western Europe’s forest area increased almost 30%. The continent’s land is now more than 40% forested.
Mediterranean shepherds and farmers have been using fire to manage the landscape for thousands of years. But most techniques used by firefighters today were developed in the United States, where the record-setting blazes of the past 10 years have shown the limits of suppression alone. In the U.S. as well as Europe, the change in approach toward fire is just beginning.
“In the scientific community, it’s understood we need to get fire back on the landscape,” says Rod Linn, a climate modeler at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “And most fire practitioners have come to grips with fire having a lot of benefits. But with the public, there’s work to do to get it socialized, to get people aware that just because you see smoke, it’s not necessarily bad.”
An international conservation group is warning that more than half of the European tree species that exist nowhere else in the world are threatened with extinction.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature said in a new report Friday that 58% of the continent’s 454 native trees are threatened and 15% are “critically endangered” – one step away from extinction.
More than 150 experts contributed to the report, which the conservancy called the first comprehensive assessment of the extinction risk of trees in Europe.
The findings in the “European Red List of Trees” come amid heightened concern about environmental issues and extinction risks in Europe and beyond. A U.N. report on biodiversity released in May warned that extinction looms for over 1 million species of plants and animals.
IUCN, a 71-year-old organization known for its “Red List” classification of threatened species, said that “invasive and problematic” species are the top threat to European trees, with urban development and “unsustainable logging” as other factors.
The group’s Europe director, Luc Bas, said “human-led activities” were resulting in population declines of important tree species.
Among the recommendations , the report’s authors called for the creation of protected areas, improved monitoring and increased research on the impacts of climate change on forests and individual tree species.
By Erin Voegele
A recent report filed with the USDA FAS’s GAIN predicts the EU market for wood pellets will likely grow this year but cautions future expansions could be limited by sustainability requirements introduced by individual member states.
According to the report, nearly half of the EU’s renewable energy is currently generated from the combustion of solid biomass, not including municipal solid waste. This includes wood chips and pellets. The EU consumes approximately 75 percent of the world’s wood pellets and accounts for about 50 percent of global production. In 2017, 40 percent of EU pellet consumption went to residential heating, with 33 percent to commercial power, 14 percent to commercial heating and 12 percent to combined-heat-and-power (CHP).
The EU consumed an estimated 27.35 million metric tons of wood pellets last year, up from 24.15 million tons in 2017. Wood pellet consumption is expected to increase to 30 million metric tons this year.
The EU is expected to produce 18.1 million metric tons of wood pellets this year, up from 18.85 million metric tons in 2018 and 15.3 million metric tons in 2017. Imports are expected to increase to 12.2 million metric tons in 2019, up from 10.355 million metric tons in 2018 and 8.692 million metric tons in 2017. EU exports of wood pellets are expected to remain at the 2018 level of 170,000 tons this year, down from 195,000 metric tons in 2017.
According to the report, the EU had 656 pellet plants in place in 2017 with a combined capacity of 22.75 million metric tons. Capacity increased to an estimated 24 million metric tons last year, and is expected to reach 25 million metric tons in 2019. Capacity use is expected to reach 72 percent this year, up from 70 percent in 2018 and 67 percent in 2017.
In 2018, the U.K. was the top EU consumer of wood pellets, with 8 million metric tons, followed by Italy with 3.75 million metric tons, Denmark with 3.5 million metric tons, Germany with 2.19 million metric tons and Sweden with 1.785 million metric tons. France, Belgium, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands and Poland were also among the top 11 EU consumers of wood pellets last year.
The U.K. imported 7.829 million metric tons of wood pellets last year, with 4.88 million tons of that volume imported form the U.S. Denmark imported 3.813 million tons of pellets last year, including 623 tons from the U.S. Italy imported 2.242 tons of wood pellets in 2018, including 88,000 tons from the U.S, while Belgium imported 1.137 tons, including 538,000 tons from the U.S.
Germany was the top EU producer of wood pellets in 2018, with 2.415 million metric tons, followed by Sweden with 1.845 million metric tons and Latvia with 1.575 million metric tons. France, Austria, Estonia, Poland, Spain and Portugal were also among the top nine EU pellet producers last year.
The U.S. was the top supplier of wood pellets to the EU last year, with 6.139 million tons, followed by Canada with 1.762 million tons and Russia with 1.365 million tons.
According to the report, a key factor in being able to capture the demand in the EU market and benefit from its growth potential is the sustainability of supply. “European traders and end-users of industrial wood pellets are calling for clear, consistent, harmonized and long-term government regulations,” said the authors in the report. “In the absence of EU-wide binding criteria for solid biomass, several EU member states, including Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands, developed their own rules in response to the growing use of wood pellets.”
Things are looking up in a swath of forest in southern Germany, thanks to innovative funding from the European Union for a project that aims to help policymakers better understand how the forest’s ecosystems work.
The ECOPOTENTIAL project uses satellite images for ecosystem modelling in 25 Protected Areas in Europe (as well as Kenya, the Caribbean and Israel) to address climate change and other threats to ecosystems. In the Bavarian forest, the images and mathematical models of ecosystems, or “Earth Observation tools”, are helping to assess the impact of climate change and pollution, and shape national protection policies.
UN Environment is one of many partners supporting the 2015-2019 ECOPOTENTIAL project, funded by the European Union to the tune of 16 million euros.
Within the ECOPOTENTIAL project, Earth Observation tools and “remote sensing”, including by aircraft and drones, are being used to better understand how vegetation is evolving across the park and over time.
Satellite and drone pictures are detecting patterns of dominant plant species, linking habitat characteristics with terrain, and tracking animal movements. The park administration is also carrying out intensive research on tree regeneration, the role of dead wood, and the impact of global warming and extreme climatic events on the future development of these ecosystems.
A Heldreich’s pine discovered in southern Italy has been thriving in a remote part of a national park for 1,230 years.
By Anna Ringstrom
Nordic forestry firms racing to replace paper business lost to the internet are trying to transform their pulp mill by-products into glue, biofuel and carbon fiber for aircraft and wind turbines.
A new generation of energy-efficient pulp mills are allowing the likes of Stora Enso, UPM-Kymmene, Metsa Group, SCA and Holmen to look for more profitable uses for by-products they have traditionally mostly burned to help power the mills.
Growing global demand for fossil-free materials is also helping to spur the innovation.
Much of the research is at an early stage, and many companies have not even decided which markets to target.
But after years of painful restructuring, some investors are starting to hope the industry could get a new lease of life.
“If they can develop new materials to replace fossil based materials, the market is endless for them,” said Sasja Beslik, head of sustainable finance at Nordea, one of the Nordic region’s biggest asset managers and Stora Enso’s seventh largest shareholder.
One early success story has been Stora Enso’s work with kraft lignin – a refined version of lignin, a substance which accounts for at least a quarter of wood and binds tree fibers together.
The Finnish company opened a kraft lignin plant in 2015, the first of its kind in the region, using a new technology developed in Sweden and marketed by Finland’s Valmet, and decided to focus on using the material as a replacement for petroleum-derived phenols in glue.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) today announced its decision to immediately disassociate from the Austrian timber giant Holzindustrie Schweighofer (Schweighofer), one of its largest members, due to the company’s persistent and indiscriminate sourcing of illegal timber in Romania. The decision follows a year-long investigation by an FSC Expert Panel, which concluded that Schweighofer had created a business “culture” favoring cheap wood over legal wood in its Romanian sourcing.
By Hannes Lechner & John Dawson-Nowak
In 2016, the wood pellet market in Europe reached a size of 19 million tons per annum (Mtpa), while production capacity stood at 23.5 Mtpa, and consists of two largely independent sectors with only limited interaction. The industrial market is focused on large-scale bioenergy generation, while the premium market is focused on small-scale residential and commercial heat generation.
Besides more growth potential in the industrial market to 2025, the likely expansion of the premium sector post-2020 offers an opportunity for North American producers to soften the impact of predicted demand decline for industrial pellets post-2027.
Release by University of Exeter
Ash trees which can resist the killer dieback fungus may be more vulnerable to attacks by insects, according to new research.
Scientists from the universities of Exeter and Warwick examined trees which are resistant to ash dieback and – unexpectedly – found they had very low levels of chemicals which defend against insects.
With efforts under way to protect ash trees from dieback, the scientists warn that selecting trees for fungal resistance could put them at risk from insects.
Aside from ash dieback, the other major threat to European ash trees is the Emerald Ash Borer beetle, which has already devastated vast tracts of ash in the USA and is currently spreading westwards across Europe.
As the world works to replace fossil fuels, wood pellets are playing a key role in decarbonizing power grids. European nations, in particular, have invested heavily in pellets for both heating and electricity generation. To supply this increased demand, global trade in pellets has doubled since 2012, with U.S., Canadian and European producers all playing a role. How this supply stream may evolve is the focus of the European Pellet Supply and Cost Analysis, a new study from RISI, an information provider for the global forest products industry.