Every year the ITTO and FAO send a questionnaire to tropical wood producing nations in order to ascertain harvesting data and every year the responses are minimal. This lack of engagement represents a much larger problem with data collection inconsistency in the forestry sector which only promises to become worse, leading many analysts to call the current situation a ‘data debacle’.
In a 2017 study, conducted by Forest Industries Intelligence, on behalf of the Global Timber Forum (GTF), it was evidenced that there remained a: “complete lack of accessible information on the volume of timber harvested worldwide”. Access to vital trade information is limited by untimely government publications and lack of adequate nation-specific data and wood product-specific data. Much of the information that is made accessible is supplied by environmental and other groups promoting a specific agenda.
To think this data collection failure is limited to developing nations or the tropical wood sector would be a mistake. Any attempt to accurately evaluate the European-wide growth and harvest of a certain species, quickly becomes bogged down in technical complexities. Some countries maintain accurate, publicly accessible, databases that detail tree stands based on regular surveys. Whereas others, particularly in Eastern Europe outside the EU, provide very little data on a regular basis.
A detailed 2016 review of the forest inventory data in Europe concluded that “when looking at forest resources at a European level, differences in forest definitions, methods and scope of the information systems reveal a very complex network made of national and regional systems, which makes the collection of harmonized information a difficult task”
This lack of comparable data is particularly pronounced for hardwood products which, traditionally, have been seen as less relevant to the commercial forest products trade. This was highlighted by Professor Nabuurs, a leading expert on European forests, speaking at the 2019 European Hardwood conference held in Berlin: “We know very little about hardwood stocks, increment, and diameters in Europe. Data gathering needs to improve. EU member states are not sufficiently open with national forest inventory data and inventory methodologies are inconsistent between countries”.
Professor Nabuurs went on to describe the worrying future difficulties generated by this lack of cohesion: “the hardwood processing sector is not ready for the challenges coming at us; climate change, matching regional demand-supply, and fragmented ownership”. This evaluation is made particularly poignant following Nabuurs comments on the recent ash dieback pandemic that has devastated the species in Europe: “We hardly know how fast the ash decline is taking place”.
With combatting climate change fast becoming the primary environmental objective of nations worldwide, the revelation that changes to the health of the global forest resource are going unnoticed, should be extremely concerning.
Ironically, some of the most insightful and detailed information on timber trade flows, markets and market participants is published by environmental NGOs in their efforts to identify malpractice in the industry.
Meanwhile, there is only limited data available on wood conversion efficiency in different countries and sectors or on applications and consumption in different end-use sectors. These issues are critical to improve efficiency of wood use and effectiveness of market development strategies, and for reliable assessment of life cycle environmental impacts of wood products.
Given the major policy focus on eradication of illegal wood in trade in recent years, through policy measures like FLEGT VPAs, EUTR and the Lacey Act, efforts to quantify illegal trade of wood products are also sketchy. As stated in the 2017 paper published by GTF: “Efforts to improve on the estimates that exist are limited – so much so that a new paper (published December 2016) by IUFRO on Quantifying Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade…was forced to rely on very crude and subjective estimates, some dating back over a decade”.
As aforementioned, there do exist various public sector publications. Oftentimes the information provided by these outlets is of a high quality, however many of the organisations that provide the information have no obligation to do so regularly.
Both the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), produce annual reports on wood product markets. However, as the 2017 GTF study states these: “have a lengthy gestation period and may be out of date before they are published”.
The report goes on to further critique these publications by commenting: “The target audience of such reports is also not always clear. Most are written to be accessible only to other policy-makers and consultants and the content may be too technical for a wider audience”.
Future data prospects
In a highly fragmented, widely distributed and often poorly resourced sector like the forest products sector, UN and other public agencies clearly will have a key role to play in improving the quality and level of access to data in the future. However it is also clear that they need to significantly up their game.
In this respect, there are some positive signs, particularly amongst those agencies that are leveraging technical innovations in remote sensing, data management and visualisation. The FAO Forest Resource Assessment (FRA), which formerly relied on irregular and often inconsistent reporting by national correspondents, is now integrating remote sensing data into their five-yearly updates of global trends.
UN COMTRADE which compiles global trade flow data has now developed an API to facilitate easy and free bulk data downloads. It is also leveraging the power of open-source software and crowd data analysis by showcasing new tools to visualise trade flows developed by external agencies.
Most recently, as part of the EU’s efforts to develop a new Forest Strategy, the European Commission has asked the EU’s Joint Research Centre to establish a permanent EU observatory on forests. This will draw on satellite data to more regularly monitor deforestation, forest degradation and changes to global forest cover and will make the data accessible to the public.
And while the public sector is just beginning to take the initiative, other independent agencies are already filling the gap. Particularly important in this respect is Global Forest Watch (GFW), a partnership between numerous private and public institutions set up with the specific intent of providing transparent and near-real time data on forest trends globally. The data available on GFW still has limitations – for example, there is no timber trade flow data and while regular updates of tree cover loss are provided, data on tree cover gain is irregular and outdated. However, the ambition is there and the platform is gradually expanding.
More generally, the role the private sector can play in improving the quality of forest products data, if conditions are right, should be highlighted. In the US for example, where there is a strong culture of private sector information provision, and where actors are used to paid subscriptions, there are numerous private publications providing high quality and specialist market intelligence with coverage extending to all forest products sectors. These publications are able to combine input from numerous contacts in the industry with good quality forest inventory and trade data made freely available by public agencies.
The challenge now is to ensure that the conditions that encourage private sector initiative in provision of independent market analysis, in combination with good quality and transparent background data on forest resources and trade, prevail throughout the global forest products sector.
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