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More than nine-tenths of homes built in the United States of America in 2021 were wood-framed.
©FAO/Ashley Steel

The ebb and flow of forest products

FAO-produced statistics constitute a chronicle of societal change.

Oil and natural gas, with their high carbon footprints, make the news headlines, but timber for housing, pulp for sanitary products, and wood pellets for energy make the present less arduous and the future brighter.

Just as demand for fossil fuels fluctuates in response to economic growth, conflict, consumer demand and manufacturing shifts, so does the demand for, and manufacture of, forest products vary. With datasets spanning decades, FAO’s specialized unit can observe global trends that reflect shifts in how society is using forest products, and ultimately in how our collective lives are lived. The data tell a variety of stories.

Energy

Until the widespread adoption of coal in the 1880s, wood was the primary source of energy for powering machines, heating homes and cooking. The transition to coal signalled a shift to fossil fuels, which continued with the advent of oil and natural gas as a source of energy. But things may be coming full circle, our dependence on coal destined to end. Indeed, while well over 2 billion people still rely on open fires, charcoal and other types of biomass energy for household cooking, the 1970s oil crisis began to establish the much cleaner wood pellets as a commercial fuel alternative: the seeds were sown for a potential return to a wood-fuelled society.

By 2012, wood pellets were assigned their own classification code, no longer lumped together with sawdust, briquettes and fire logs. The move has allowed experts to track the extent to which this renewable source of energy is being generated and traded. We thus see wood pellet production skyrocket in recent years, mainly driven by the demand generated by the European Commission’s bioenergy targets: from 2012 to 2021, global output soared nearly 150 percent to 44 million tonnes, increasingly offsetting – though certainly not fully – society’s recourse to fossil fuels.

Construction

In 2018, the construction sector alone was responsible for an estimated 40 percent of energy- and process-related greenhouse gas emissions. Using more wood in the sector is a cost-effective way to roll back that percentage.

In the early 1990s, the industry introduced a forest product capable of replacing concrete and steel in certain building applications: cross-laminated timber (CLT). With its crisscrossing layers of sawnwood glued together, CLT panels proved strong and stable enough for office buildings and even skyscrapers. But it was not until a decade ago, as more and more countries embraced the technology, that CLT became an internationally traded product.

Household counterparts to the CLT panels are particleboard and oriented strand board (OSB), which debuted in the 1960s. Commonly used in construction and furniture manufacturing, OSB first appeared with its own code in the harmonized system nomenclature of the WCO in 2007. In the second half of the 2010s, the global production of particleboard and OSB panels posted the fastest growth among all wood product categories – 25 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Most of the growth in demand for these products came from Eastern Europe, including the Russian Federation.

In 2022, a classification for engineered wood products (CLT, glulam and I-beams) was added to the Classification of Forest Products.

Press the name of any wood product at bottom to see it displayed. Grab the edges of the bottom bar to shrink and expand the years displayed in the main graph.
Mouse over to see data values.
Data source: FAO. 2023. Forestry production and trade. In: FAOSTAT. Rome. Cited 30 June 2023. https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/FO
doi.org/10.4060/CC7561EN-fig02

A recession and a pandemic

Recessions see shifts in consumer spending habits, some less predictable than others. The 2008 crisis caused a sharp drop in the global demand for timber. But not so the 2020 downturn after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, when, far from dampening demand, high prices led the forest products industry to invest in new sawmills.

Similarly, the pandemic saw a surge in the production of packaging paper and paperboard, as well as household and sanitary papers. By the end of 2021, production of items in these categories grew to reach a total of 321 million tonnes – twice as much as thirty years ago.

Conversely, lockdowns accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, and the already declining production of printing paper, writing paper and newsprint plummeted by 11.4 percent. Overall, the contraction over the last 15 years has exceeded 50 percent, down to under 100 million tonnes today.

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