RSE report on public funding of forestry

A Royal Society of Edinburgh inquiry into the public funding of forestry has published its report – highlighting, in particular, one of its recommendations that the “Scottish Government should discontinue subsidies for coniferous commercial tree planting”. There are 15 other recommendations, and while they are not so headline grabbing, they are also worth talking about.

“The Royal Society of Edinburgh 2024 Inquiry into public financial support for tree planting and forestry.” (direct link to pdf of report here)

Coverage included the Sunday Times “SNP barking up wrong tree with net zero forestry plans” and the Guardian “Scrap subsidies to Scotland’s conifer forests, urges report“. The reception has been… I suppose the polite term is “mixed”. The Forestry Journal reported “Forestry figures condemn anti-commercial conifer planting report” and there has been reaction on LinkedIn by Scottish Forestry saying they are disappointed that the Royal Society of Edinburgh didn’t engage with them in the production of the report, despite their offer. Meanwhile, over on X, the RSE kicked back saying Scottish Forestry did not respond. Who to believe?

Scroll down to “Original commentary starts here” if you want to skip to my thoughts. What immediately follows are some updates.

[Edit: 4/3/2024 4pm there is another article in the Scotsman, covering the reaction to the report and a piece on LinkedIn by David Robinson of Scottish Woodlands.] [Edit: 4/3/2024 7pm there is another article in the Forestry Journal – which includes more on the question of what engagement there was between RSE and Scottish Forestry. This also includes a view from Andy Wightman that it is time forestry had a proper debate about public funding and tax breaks. I am inclined to agree with that but I am not sure this is going to be a proper debate now]

[Edit 19/4/2024 a huge update of information. Not only has Confor published an industry response, but it has also gathered some commentary from some very informed academics. I recommend you read the full responses because they are *detailed*:
* response from Professor John Healey, Forest Sciences, Bangor University;
* response from Dr Andrew Cameron, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen;
* response from Dr Morwenna Spear, The BioComposites Centre, Bangor University.
Also, on the matter of the UK’s imports and controls related to legality and sustainability – you can see from the latest UKTR report 2021-2022 published August 2023 that it is no easy task given the resources and the complexity when the timber is coming from further away – via third party countries. Vigilance is also difficult for responsible importers. Of course the UK will always have to rely heavily on imports, but we should not overlook the contribution that a domestic timber supply can have to easing those problems that we do not see out of our own windows]

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I shall (mostly) leave my commentary here to the subjects I know most about – and will leave it to others with more knowledge to discuss the other parts.

Firstly, I will say that this is a very difficult task to take on the work of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – an institution for which I have a lot of respect and owe a lot of thanks. It’s also not in my career interests to irritate RSE. Unfortunately though, I do not think they have done good work with this report and I fear it will cause damage to the very things it states it wants to support.

The RSE’s inquiry was launched in 2022, with a pro-forma of questions. They say they received 45 submissions of evidence and have published 29 of these on their website. I submitted a response (see Daniel Ridley-Ellis 154kb pdf) answering some of the questions, but I was never directly contacted by RSE to do so, and I didn’t speak to anyone working on the report at any stage (I would have done if they had asked). Probably I should have done a better job with my evidence, but a month isn’t much time to respond when there are so many other demands on time.

Some have accused the RSE of bias in their process – and I have to say that I found the questions were written in a way that was difficult to answer – but I suggest you read the questions and the published responses and make up your own mind as to whether the RSE did a good job in testing the questions “to ensure neutrality” (report paragraph 26) and whether you think any of the statements that attempted to tweak a perceived bias in a question as asked were considered “outwith the remit of the inquiry” (report paragraph 34).

In paragraph 85 of the report, under the subheading of “import substitution”, the RSE dismisses the premise that the UK should reduce its reliance on timber imports to help limit our contribution to damage and loss of the world’s natural forests. It does so with a very panglossian view that all is OK because we import from countries with “good environmental standards” (without explaining how, or if, these countries avoid the problems it outlines for the UK – or how the countries we import wood products from might be importing the wood they use from other countries). Plywood is mentioned as a high risk product for non-sustainability with the remark that it doesn’t matter because it is not manufactured anymore in the UK – without mentioning the very widely used alternative to plywood (in many building construction applications) which the UK does make in large quantities: oriented strand board (OSB) – more on that below. What is also missed here is that, in the face of rising global demand for timber, climate change, tree pests and diseases, and political strife, we cannot reasonably expect the supply of imported timber to continue as we are used to. This is issue 14 in Tew et al 2023 which is referenced in the RSE’s report (paragraph 162) but without any mention of this element of it. Only relatively recently, several papers were saying that we need not worry about rising global demand for timber because Russia still has untapped natural forest resources. Paragraph 71 of the RSE report seems to suggest that there has not been a strategic need for a domestic timber supply since 1957 – as if political sanctions on timber are not a thing. Even if you do not buy the sustainability argument, a domestic timber supply helps to ride out the peaks and troughs of the import market.

In paragraph 91 they state that funding should be reallocated to increase native and non-commercial woodlands “that will lead to greater carbon capture”. And in paragraph 161 they say “commercial
conifer is poorer at sequestering carbon”. This is definitely not my area of expertise, but the evidence presented on this claim within the RSE report seems to be thin and selective without explanation – seemingly disregarding recent Forest Research analysis and not mentioning papers such as Forster et al 2021 ( In paragraphs 94 and 101 they do seem to acknowledge that commercial forestry can deliver an element of carbon capture and storage through carbon in wood products – but otherwise that element (and potential or substitution of more carbon intensive materials) is not (as far as I can tell) considered as part of the picture.

Section 8, “Timber industry” seems to me to be the weakest section – perhaps because this is the subject I do know most about. I strongly disagree with paragraph 94 and I had tried, in my evidence submission, to tackle this very misconception. The RSE report says:

  1. Timber processing in Scotland is largely restricted to short-life and low value products that in turn produce limited added value (Construction Leadership Forum, 2023). This in turn leads to the early release of the sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere.

And my evidence said:

“The word “timber” can be interpreted to refer to all woody forest products, but for clarity: forests do not just provide sawn wood, but also other important co-products including bark, chip, sawdust and small roundwood. These satisfy a range of needs including materials for agriculture, wood-based board production, biomass energy and paper. Some of these are sometimes referred to as “low-value”, in reference to the financial value per tonne, but they have high value to society.”

I guess I should have written more – pointing out that modern timber frame house construction uses a lot of engineered wood product derived from coproducts (such as OSB and particleboard) and that products viewed as short life, such as fencing and pallets are also crucial for construction, food production and much more – and with the UK actually having now pretty good wood recycling and pallet reuse. However – its not exactly rocket science to find this out.

I am also not sure if they really can justify their statement (“restricted to short-life and low value products”) based on the report they cite – it doesn’t seem (to me) to be saying that.

Even more bizarre is lack of any mention of the relatively high proportion of timber frame house construction in Scotland (> 90%) – for which home grown timber is already suitable (and used to some degree) – or the large amount of wood products used for the non-structural parts of buildings.

Paragraph 95 says “Pursuing more complex added value manufacturing such as Glue Laminated Timber (Glulam), Nail Laminated Timber (NLT) and Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) would not only be more lucrative but would also lead to the long-term sequestration of carbon compared with lower grade wood products” which is a bonkers statement in my opinion. Yes, development of these is useful and interesting, but why say that this is what is important when sawn timber is already suitable for light timber frame – and these products (as they currently are) largely demand the kind of forestry that the RSE report criticises elsewhere. Had they said that these products could open up possibilities for using timber from a wider range of species and forest managements I would have applauded it – but to say it is necessary for profit and long-term sequestration seems to indicate a lack of understanding. Not only that, but I don’t see how the recommendation (number 1) for reducing public funding for commercial forestry supports recommendation (number 4) to assist the Scottish timber industry in adding value to raw timber by supporting firms to develop and expand mass timber products. Who would invest without worrying about the future timber supply?

Paragraph 96 says “Scotland also benefits from centres of excellence in timber research, particularly
through the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University” which obviously is extremely flattering – but also a bit embarrassing when next to those other statements. I really wish RSE had reached out because this whole section could have been improved pretty easily.

In paragraph 106 they state that commercial conifers tend to be planted as moncultures – and yet in paragraph 107 they mention that the UKFS requires a maximum 75% of a single species – and also that this limit will reduce to a maximum of 65% in the 5th edition coming into force later this year. The problems and risks of monoculture forestry is – I would say – something the industry has an increasing appreciation of and yet the RSE text seems not to reflect that. RSE’s recommendation is basically that UKFS should be followed. Um… yeah… isn’t that the point of UKFS?

In paragraph 128 the RSE states that they received, and found, no figures supporting the claim that planting projects take too long to approve – adding that they do not expect it to be a quick process “especially as biological rhythms do not necessarily coincide with commercial objectives” (which makes me wonder what they think the approval process involves). This is not my area, but I feel sure people in the industry that make this claim could have put forward some data on it – and I wonder what actual efforts RSE made to seek it out.

Also not my area, but I am curious: Recommendation 13 is that “Scottish Forestry should consider providing guidance on the form and content of EIA submissions”. It is a pity that no more explanation is given here as to what is inadequate about Scottish Forestry’s provided guidance on the form and content of EIA submissions. At least a reference to it would have helped.

Paragraph 161 says there is “no current economic need for public money to facilitate commercial tree planting” to which I ask – what kind of commercial timber planting does that refer to? The type they criticise or the type that we should be moving to for the better public good?

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Addendum, 19/03/2024: In the Scotsman, an opinion piece by Prof Ian Wall, who chaired the enquiry, says, among other things:

“The investment of public funds is not required for commercial reasons as forestry production and harvesting is a mature, successful business with national and international owners”.

My comment: Tax breaks and subsidies are also not unique to Scotland – they are commonly used around the world to reduce risks from making forestry investments (which are relatively long term), increase the economic return from timber production, and incentivise certain things that pure market forces do not. It would have been interesting if the RSE report had looked at some international comparisons. It is also not exactly the case that everyone thinks our forestry industry is in good commercial health – and one might also question if we should be totally open to international corporate ownership. We should also not forget that state owned forest enterprises are not uncommon – about 40% of the EU’s forest cover is publicly owned – with a lot of state owned enterprises acting like for-profit companies. There is even an association called Eustafor which covers wood production by state forest companies in Europe – Forestry and Land Scotland is a member.

“Furthermore, these payments distort the land market with values for tree-planting land increasing considerably, and now exceeding agricultural land values in some parts of Scotland”

My comment: If there is a desire to increase forest area (of whatever type) surely some distortion of the land market is inevitable, however it is done? Perhaps the problem described here is not really in the mechanism, but in a disagreement as to whether forest land or agricultural land is more important. I’m not saying there aren’t problems here – I’m just questioning if the cause of the problems is correctly identified.

Nor does this tree production (or more of it) reduce damage to forests in countries with poor environmental protection, as the great majority of UK timber imports – 30 per cent of which are for burning as bio fuels – are from North America and Europe. No country outside these areas provides even one per cent of our timber imports, though it is notable that we import our plywood from Brazil, since the last UK producer stopped making it in 2007.

My comment: I am pretty sure there are many people who will point to environmental problems in Europe and North America that are partly driven by wood consumption in the UK. Waving this issue away is a bad look – and so is selective mention of the facts. A look at the latest Forestry Statistics chapter on trade also shows the UK gets 30% of its wood pulp imports from Brazil and more than half of its plywood imports from China in 2022 (40% in 2018). That quote above also implies that if we import wood products from European countries, that the wood comes from European countries – that is not the case (even when there are supposed to be restrictions). One might also ask – if we took less of our timber from sustainably managed forests abroad, would that allow other countries to replace their imports from the unsustainable sources? Although, given the recommendations the question is perhaps more – how much can the UK increase its imports without increasing environmental impact? And what might the countries that we import from do in future? Will they continue to do forestry the same way?

“most timber grown in Scotland goes to low-value, short-life products, such as paper, fibre board and pallets, that return the carbon to the atmosphere after their short lives, and much of the timber processed in sawmills ends up as shavings and sawdust that are used efficiently but rapidly return their carbon to the atmosphere.”

My comment: Why lead with paper when it is such a small component of the UK industry these days? A look at the latest Forestry Statistics chapter on home grown timber shows that pulp and paper mills took less than 4% of the home grown roundwood delivery. The term fibreboard is perhaps loosely used (MDF and other fibreboards account for only a quarter of the UK’s wood based panel production – most of which is particleboard – Oriented Strand Board and chipboard – quite common materials in construction). It is good to see acknowledgement that shavings and sawdust (valuable economic coproducts) are used efficiently, but the words “rapidly return their carbon to the atmosphere” does not stop the reader concluding that the main reason for this is that they can’t be long lived (such as particleboard in construction) and not because of what it is needed for (such as the many uses in agriculture). Wood pallets and packaging are also pretty important for food production and supply – as is, the unmentioned other big market: fencing. I wonder why the 34% of Scottish sawn timber going to construction markets is not mentioned.

“One area where short-term public capital investment could be justified is in supporting the timber-processing industry to invest in expensive machinery to create high-value, long-term construction products, such as glulam beams and cross-laminated timbers. This would use an abundant Scottish resource, support more jobs, boost the economy and ensure that some Sitka can sequester carbon for the long term.”

My comment: Leaving aside the questionable idea that domestic glulam and CLT manufacture could be more profitable than a market for sawn structural timber – does this solve the issue described above? CLT and glulam require more processing than sawn timber, so even more of the round log has to go to co-product. It might possibly allow more of the log to go to construction than at present (e.g making use of the side boards), but its not going to make a huge difference (especially as we will still need those other products like wooden pallets and fencing – and moving that way might reduce the use of wood based panel products in construction). The words “ensure that some Sitka can sequester carbon for the long term” strongly suggest that some Sitka currently can’t and doesn’t – when it can and it does. Linking this bit about engineered wood products (we should be thinking more widely than CLT and glulam) to Sitka spruce rather misses a big advantage of going down this route – that we could make use of something other than Sitka. And as for “abundant Scottish resource” – well it is only “abundant” because it was planted. Stop planting and restocking and it won’t be for long. Not sure abundant is the right word either – given recent supply problems and a long-term trajectory of rising demand.