Last week’s editorial “Unthinkable war in Ukraine demands a rethink on EU food security” raised fundamental questions on the interdependency of the three Fs – food, fuel and fertiliser.
The premise of the editorial was that the controllers of the price of EU energy also control the price and the availability of fertilisers to EU farmers, “and therefore the price and availability of food for consumers”.
In addition to food security, continuity of fuel supply is a major issue, especially among countries that have a high dependence on fossil-based energy. We now look with envy on countries with high levels of renewable energy as climate change visionaries. But climate change had little to do with many of these countries shifting their energy requirements to renewables.
It’s now almost a half century since the last major oil crisis hit the global economy. Readers of a certain age will remember the long queues for petrol and diesel at service stations as the price of scarce oil quadrupled within weeks.
In 1973, Denmark was more dependent on oil than Ireland but it reacted differently. Cars were banned from roads on selected weekend days, factories temporarily closed and street lights were switched off. Denmark vowed to be a major renewable energy producer of biomass – mainly wood – and wind, not because of climate change, but because the Danes decided they would never again be 100% reliant on the vagaries of global oil markets.
Sweden, Finland and Austria led the way in renewables, also for practical reasons of energy security. Sweden and Finland have huge timber reserves, while Austria has a well-advanced hydro power energy sector but is also developing wood biomass energy.
Compared to these countries, Ireland has fewer forests but we produce rapidly-growing forests – over three times faster than the Finns and Swedes.
It is often forgotten that despite our low forest cover, the island now produces 5m m3 of timber annually which is forecast to increase to 8m m3 by 2035.
While it makes sense to make things out of wood, the great renewable energy-producing countries also use small logs and residues for renewable energy.
Our wood processors already do this on a small scale but we now have an estimated 1.2m m3 of small logs and lop and top available for energy which will increase to 2m m3 by 2035.
If 1.2m m3 of wood are processed into dry wood chips every year, they will displace 246m litres of heating oil based on 1m3 of timber substituting 205 litres of oil. By 2035, when 2m m3 of biomass will be available annually, 410m litres of oil could be displaced.
“This works out at 7.8% of Ireland’s heating bill, but its impact exceeds oil displacement,” according to Noel Gavigan, executive officer, IrBEA.
“Given current oil prices, wood heating could shave as much as 60% off fuel costs for commercial operators. In addition, wood fuels provide jobs in forest management, harvesting, haulage and maintenance, unlike oil, which adds very little to the local economy.”
Given the dramatic cost increase in fossil fuel prices experienced in recent weeks, development of the indigenous wood biomass sector presents an opportunity to reduce dependency on imported fossil fuels, maintains Seán Finan, CEO, IrBEA.
“The Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH) is ideal for non-domestic heat users to transition from fossil fuels to biomass systems.”
He admitted that uptake has been slow to date with implementation issues being addressed by SEAI. “Projects supported have been predominantly in the agriculture sector, mainly in pig, poultry and horticulture plants,” he said. “COVID-19 has caused business disruption for many hotels, leisure centres and care homes which are ideally placed to benefit from the SSRH. However, the SEAI needs to urgently prioritise a significant promotional and marketing campaign to raise awareness about the SSRH among heat users.”
It is important to ensure continuity of log supply from early thinnings, which should not be subject to felling licences as is the norm in Scandinavia.
At a time when the minister has set up an emergency team to monitor the agriculture supply chain situation, a wood energy promotion campaign outlined by Seán Finan is vital. This would require a user-friendly SSRH for heat users and the abolition of licences for forest owners.
Afforestation licences remain low and data inconsistent
An average of 103 forestry licences were issued weekly for the month of February for Coillte felling (50), private felling (33), roads (nine) and private afforestation (11). The peak of 142 achieved for one week in January hasn’t been maintained.
A spokesperson for one of the forestry companies said: “The private felling licences are disappointing while the afforestation approvals are now too low to offer any sign of recovery for the planting programme.”
He also commented on what amounts to “manipulation” of the data. “Stakeholders taking a cursory look at the data will see for example that licences issued for the first week in March are just 20 licences short of the maximum of 120 licences as presented on the monthly graph, which looks promising,” he said.
“But the maximum production on the graph has been changed from 160 licences in January to 120 in March so, in fact, the number of licences issued is 60 short of the 160 licences needed which is a conservative target.
“Changing the presentation of data when performance is poor is childish and deliberately misleading for those who expect consistency in data recording.”
This year’s Augustine Henry Forestry Lecture is “Forests, wood products and bioenergy – critical elements of climate neutrality”. It will be delivered by Dr David Styles, NUI Galway as a webinar at 3pm on Thursday 24 March.
Organised by the Society of Irish Foresters, the lecture explores the role of forestry in Ireland’s Climate Action Plan which aims to achieve a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, and “climate neutrality” by 2050. This presentation outlines the critical role of an expanding and diverse forestry sector in meeting climate neutrality targets and explores trade-offs across different forestry types and wood uses over relevant time horizons into the next century.
Dr Styles is senior lecturer in agri sustainability at NUI Galway.
Since 2004, he has specialised in lifecycle assessment (LCA) of food, bioproduct, energy and waste management systems at TCD, Ireland’s EPA, the European Commission, Bangor University and University of Limerick.
The webinar is free. To attend, you should register by scanning the QR code or tap it if viewing on e-paper. In case of difficulties in registration, email email@example.com.