Supply and demand challenges highlighted at International Hardwood Conference

Delegates at this year’s IHC in Venice

International Hardwood Conference speakers covered a diverse range of topics; from growing pressures of market globalisation, to application of massive US white oak glulam beams in construction. 

The hardwood industry is at a critical point, facing increasing and shifting global demand.

“By 2030, global roundwood consumption is set to rise 60 per cent, making it ever more important where hardwood comes from, how it’s produced and where it’s used,” Fedecomlegno Chairman Alessandro Calcaterra said. (Experts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization say one third of the world’s hardwood supply will come from plantations by then.)

Looking at the current picture, analyst Rupert Oliver of Forest Industries Intelligence said latest statistics indicated 2017 global hardwood imports and exports both stable at $35 Bn, with the industry continuing to show lack of value growth, despite rising world population. Underlying this static picture, however, was migration in the balance of market power, in both log and lumber consumption, principally to Asia and notably China.

“China’s rise has been exponential,” said Mr Oliver. “Its 2016 log imports are expected to be 15.4 million tonnes, up from 14.3 million in 2015, with lumber imports ahead 12.5 per cent to nine million.”

Mr Calcaterra and Mr Oliver were speaking at the International Hardwood Conferece held in Venice from Nov 15-17. Mr Calcaterra represents an Italian trade federation which is part of FederlegnoArredo, one of the event’s organisers. The conference was also hosted by European Timber Trade Federation (ETTF) and European Organisation of Sawmill Industries (EOS). It attracted about 150 participants from 17 countries.

Focusing on Europe, ETTF President Andreas von Möller described the contraction of its tropical wood imports in recent years as ‘sad’ and at least in part due to specifier misperceptions’ around the material’s legal and sustainable credentials.  But, he added, with the exception of an uncertain UK, due to Brexit, European market prospects were generally positive, with most countries’ GDP and construction sectors trending up.

A key concern in Europe was raw material availability, principally due to rising emerging economy consumption of European logs, EOS President Sampsa Auvinen pointed. 

“We must insist on a level timber market playing field,” he said. “Without raw material the European sawmill industry will be forced out of the market.”

American hardwoods

In terms of changing global timber consumption and trade patterns, Executive Director of the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) Mike Snow said the trendsetter was and would continue to be China.  His focus was the American hardwood sector’s transformation from being a largely US-centred business to the world’s biggest hardwood lumber exporter, with nearly half of its grade timber sold abroad. China had played a critical part in this evolution.

“It has accounted for all our export growth since the 1990s and now buys one in four US hardwood grade boards,” said Mr Snow. What was concerning now though, he added, was rising Chinese consumption of US logs, creating potential competition both for US mills’ raw material and lumber exports.

AHEC European Director David Venables described the association’s work in TMT hardwoods and its applications. The recent use of US white oak glulam beams in the roof structure of the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London was a key breakthrough. Earlier, Maggie’s Centre also made the headlines for being the first permanent building made from US tulipwood CLT and TMT hardwoods.

Tropical timber

Growth in tropical timber consumption in developing countries will continue, albeit with less stringent legality controls, and declines in developed countries with stricter import rules. Similarly, population growth would further accelerate timber sector regionalisation and sharpen the trade’s focus on raw material supply and logistics.

Furthermore, growing global consumption of hardwood and its increasing significance will lend to sustainable forest management.

Other Conference speakers included Elvio Florian, of Italian hardwood producer and IHC main sponsor Florian Legno, Andreas Kleinschmit von Lengefeld of the European Hardwood Innovation Alliance, Maurizio Riva of Italian hardwood furniture specialist Riva, Joël Lefebvre of Group Lefebvre, Stefano Cora of Cora’Domenico & Figli and CNR Ivalsa researcher Nicola Macchioni.