A UBC expert sheds light on the rapidly changing face of forestry—and how the local B.C. industry can capitalize on the emerging bioeconomy
With shrinking demand for newsprint and a declining Asian market on the horizon, B.C.’s forestry sector must innovate. UBC Forestry professor David Cohen explains why the bioeconomy is the key to future prosperity.
What is the bioeconomy?
The world is experiencing massive population growth, and it’s mostly in developing countries. Increasing populations, a growing middle class all wanting more “stuff” is leading to more demand on the world’s resources, higher commodity prices and growing environmental degradation. This is driving the bioeconomy: one that uses biological processes and renewable resources to improve health and sustainable economic activities.
How significant is the bioeconomy to forestry?
Forestry has an important role to play in the emerging bioeconomy. Many of the chips left over from making lumber in Canada have gone into making pulp for newsprint and other graphic papers, which is now in rapid decline. The first sustained increase in commodity prices for over 100 years leads to a search for traditional nonrenewable energy and other commodities.
What can forestry provide to the bioeconomy?
If I can make a biofuel to drive a car from wood chips that are left over from making lumber, then I’ve produced something that replaces oil. We are still conducting research to be able to do that, but the industry is producing some bioplastics and biochar which, when burned with coal, reduces the pollution of the coal.
Conifex is starting up a big bioenergy plant in northern B.C. that will produce enough energy to take care of 16,000 homes. It will use a combination of chips from sawmills and logs from dead pine. FPInnovations, a non-profit forestry research centre, has created cellulose filaments that can create the softest toilet paper in the world, and it is partnering with Quebec’s Kruger Inc. in a pilot plant.
So we’re looking at a whole series of wood products that we can make out of wood chips that are no longer needed to produce newsprint. That’s some of the kind of research that goes on at UBC and FPInnovation, which is just up the street.
Have we passed the pine beetle crisis?
It’s still a problem, because there are now massive areas with dead trees. These can provide material for the bioeconomy if we can figure out how to get it to power plants. The forest products industry in Canada is going through massive changes and the pine beetle crisis is just one of the drivers of these changes.
Do you see the demand from China for B.C. lumber continuing?
The demand will slow down over time. Some of our wood in China goes into concrete forming for construction, and some of it goes into secondary manufacturing. But the Chinese building boom will come to an end soon. There are too many empty apartments purchased on speculation. Urbanization growth is slowing down, and the middle class is getting tapped out with car and other payments. You’re going to see a decline in housing starts, which will end up with a decline in the demand for wood.
As the U.S. economy picks up, the price of lumber will go up in the U.S., so we will probably shift less low-cost wood to China and more medium-cost wood to the U.S. to get better prices. Economically, it probably won’t affect us too much. Our volume of low-grade lumber is shrinking as the pine gets too degraded.