I’ve just attended a breakfast briefing from the Club du Bois, an umbrella group for the European woodworking and wood panel (chipboard) industries, and heard from their Austrian President Ladislaus Döry, and I’d like to tell you about it. But to explain the issues, I’m going to have to ask you to suspend disbelief for a moment, and pretend that cutting CO2 emissions really matters — for that was at the heart of the debate.
I’ve been aware for some time that the chipboard industry is suffering because the wood they use — typically from smaller branches that you can’t make into logs — is in demand from the biomass industry, for burning, which of course is subsidised with our money. I mentioned this briefly half-way down an earlier blog. Biomass is also (I understand) subject to looser regulation than timber for chipboard. So the chipboard industry, which is vital to the construction sector, is facing both shortages and higher prices.
As I pointed out in my intervention at the breakfast, we tend to compare biomass/woodchip with fossil fuels like coal –and even there we get it wrong. Last year I reported on a major study showing that wood pellet biomass based on mature trees from the USA, pelletised and shipped to the Drax power station in the UK, achieves only marginal emissions savings, and that after many decades. In the short term, it actually increases emissions.
But in any case, it’s the wrong comparison. We should be asking “Is it better for the environment to burn wood now, or to use it as chipboard, and maybe burn it forty years later when the building is demolished?”. The industry points out that chipboard is an excellent insulator, and therefore “environmentally friendly” when used in buildings. They also remind us that “storing carbon” in woodchip for forty years, then burning it, is surely better for the environment than burning it today.
Yet we have offered perverse subsidies and incentives that ensure the wood is burnt now, not later.
Concerns were expressed at the event over insect-born diseases affecting Mediterranean palms in southern Europe. I took the opportunity to air the issue I wrote about recently, a Derbyshire company with a pesticide effective against these vectors of tree diseases, whose product is selling well in America and Australia. But the company is unable to find the £3 million that it would cost to get their product accredited in the EU. Excessive EU regulation damages the Derbyshire business, Armillotox, but also denies European foresters and trees the benefit of the product. How many more own goals will we score in the EU?
Ladislaus Döry said he feared that “Some of the (environmental) good intentions are destroying our industry”. And in a priceless comment he added: “We have a saying in Austria. There are no green jobs. Only green bureaucrats”.