Why Assumptions About Wood Biomass Could Be Going Up in Smoke

By Charolette Duck
Harvesting trees for energy and commercial use goes against most people’s idea of sustainability. Although lumber practices happening across Austria suggest that this isn’t always the case.

WHEN IT COMES to finding new ways to create energy, there’s an assumption that the solution must come from something new. In Austria, however, experts are showing that this is not necessarily the case. Particularly when it comes to something as elementary as burning wood – which is as old as the proverbial hills.

Wood has been used as a heat source for thousands of years, and a power source for more than a century, but the relationship between deforestation and global warming has caused it to be overlooked as a potential alternative source of energy. However, new forestry production and management techniques trialled in Austria suggest that trees might actually have a key role to play in helping to sustainably satisfy our demand for energy – the key is being smart about how we do it.

With forests covering almost half the country – 47 per cent in fact – you don’t have to go far to find a tree in Austria. So, it’s unsurprising that the nation would look to harness this natural resource for its energy needs. But, sustainable forestry is more complicated than just cutting down one tree and replacing it with another. Some clever thinking is required.

“A forest owner has to determine the total volume of growth in their forest per year, every ten years,” says Christian Rakos of the European Pellet Council. “If 1000 cubic metres of wood are added every year by growth of the trees, this is the volume you can cut each year.” Formulas such as this have helped shaped laws that govern the progressive forestry industry in Austria. The math might be a little tricky, but in Austria, any deviation from this formula is taken very seriously indeed– so much so that there are special authorities who ensure that forestry laws are respected. What’s more, these forest police must approve any cutting that’s larger than half a hectare, and check regularly to ensure that harvested areas are replanted immediately, or will naturally regenerate within five years.

Similarly, endangered species are also carefully monitored, and forestry near their habitats severely restricted. If the worst should happen and a forest is wiped out unexpectedly by natural disaster, say from a storm, disease or pests, then the number of harvestable trees the following year will be reduced accordingly.

They might be strict, but these tactics are certainly working. After all, forty percent of Austria’s annual forest growth remains untouched each year, with the net result being that forests are actually increasing in size.

Source: Why Assumptions About Wood Biomass Could Be Going Up in Smoke – National Geographic Partner Content, 2019-08-20