Renewable Matter # 19 / December-January

A Forest

Interview with Marc Palahí

by Emanuele Bompan, interview with Marc Palahí

In addition to providing energy, forests have always played a crucial role in biodiversity conservation and in preserving the equilibrium of ecosystems. Nowadays, wood can also be used to manufacture biomaterials that can substitute products of fossil origin in many sectors, like construction, chemistry and textile. 



The expression “sustainability” is strictly correlated with forests. The word came into use in 1713 when the chief mining official Hans Carl von Carlowitz, from Freiberg, Saxony, published the forestry treatise Sylvicultura oeconomica, in which the principle of “continuously enduring and sustainable use” was discussed for the first time. Von Carlowitz coined the term at a time when many parts of Europe were in need of vast quantities of wood for mining and ore-smelting. Gradually the environs of many mining towns were becoming deforested. Wood shortages were an imminent threat. In his Sylvicultura oeconomica he called for the forests to be conserved and people should only harvest as much wood as could regrow. Today forest are becoming a key element in the bioeconomy sector: they provide material (wood and non-wood), bioenergy and a wealth of other regulating and cultural ecosystem services, carbon sink as the most important. An array of innovation in sustainable management and chemical processes is making forest worldwide more and more relevant as a resource. 

We have discussed future development of the forest-based sector with Marc Palahí, director of the European Forest Institute, an international organization established by 28 European States, which goal is to conduct research and provide policy support on issues related to the lungs of the Earth.


Mr Palahí, which role will forests play in the future economy in terms of products and in terms of services?

“Forests are the most important biological infrastructure that we have on the planet: they are the largest carbon sink, the main house for land biodiversity and the main terrestrial source of oxygen and water precipitation. They are crucial to enhance the resilience of rural and urban communities, because they have a positive effect on water, soil and biodiversity, which are the key resources to sustain life on our planet. The second fundamental role, related to our economy, is that they are the main source of non-food renewable biological resources. Such resources can be transformed into materials as soft as cotton or as resistant as steel. You can produce base products that can replace environmentally-out-performed fossil-based products from industrial sector like construction, textile, plastic or chemicals. So forest based products are crucial for a circular economy within planet’s boundaries.” 


Does technology allow to use all the parts of a tree?

“In countries like Finland and Sweden advanced technologies are able to use all the parts of a tree, and its component, cellulose and lignin. 

While cellulose has been transformed for many years in several different products, today you can use lignin as basis for carbon fibre (LCFs). So in the near future we will be able to have cars and planes made of carbon fibres coming from wood.”


Wood is also used for energy. In your opinion, would be better to use it to produce materials? 

“Forest’s bioenergy is now playing an important role at the European level and it will play a crucial role in the near future.”




So, is it a transitional fuel?

“I think it’s a transitional source of energy. But I believe that in the long run the energy sector can be fully decarbonised. The transition to clean energy has started and is moving very fast. I think the key role of the forest for economy in the future will be in the substitution of materials.”


Construction is a key sector where woods can become a tier-one material.

“Nowadays wood construction only represents 10% of the total market in Europe, but of course technology is developing very fast. Today you can build large buildings, as tall as steel ones. Building with wood is very positive for the climate because you capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for a long period of time. You can reduce substantially the carbon footprint of a building by 50% using wood instead of concrete and steel. The challenge is legislation: still in many countries it’s not allowed to build wood buildings more than 2/3 stories.”




Forest stewardship is the key to preserve forests, also for economic use. What can the perfect global management be for forestry management?

“At the European level we have a successful story. In the last 30 years the forest surface has increased as an equivalent of three times the size of Switzerland, with increasing growing stock and stronger biodiversity. However in the Tropics and other regions, forest trees have not been as competitive as agriculture or other land uses. That is why deforestation is happening: farmers make more money with soya or farming. With good investment we can reverse it. And if the bioeconomy wants to be successful we need to invest in biodiversity, because that ensures the resilience of the biological resource in the long term. To do so we need strong policy and investment to promote forestry.”


Which role can international organisations play?

“We need them to stop deforestation, and to promote re-forestation plans. Over one billion hectares can be recovered thanks to forest bioeconomy. This will be a solid solution to tackle climate change while promoting biobased products. When a value-chain is built, you can distribute wealth and jobs. We need one clear goal: to put a price on carbon emissions, a very clear policy to stimulate the market, while stopping subsidising fossil products.” 



European Forest Institute,