The Government moved quickly to offer financial support to our fellow Australians after Ford's recent announcement. It might do equally well to consider some calibrated and creative intervention at the top of other cliffs rather than awaiting other trade exposed industries to fall off. The forest products industry is a profound case in point, where a sensible dose of prevention can, and should, easily outweigh the costly cure.
This is not to advocate anything like tariff barriers or other simplistic devices - which kill innovation. But even some of the driest economic purists acknowledge it is sensible for a nation to tweak policy settings to help their industries transition to a new operating environment. The long term cost to the economy of losing whole sectors, or capacity, is far greater than the short term cost of straying from the purely rational script.
Forestry and forest products need that sort of thinking now. The comment I heard recently on radio that forestry is a 'sunset industry', is rubbish. But I do have to admit it could be true in years to come if we continue to ignore our local businesses while our competitors, with all sorts of assistance, vacuum up our markets.
It goes without saying that forestry, and the things we make from trees, still fill our lives - as they have for hundreds of years. From house framing, flooring, windows and wall cladding to furniture and of course paper, tissue and packaging products almost without number.
And the future for all those things is bright. The oft-reported decline in newsprint in developed nations is dwarfed by the massive uptake of all sorts of other timber and paper products – led by China and India. In 2011 the Asia Pacific region saw a 40% growth in the paper products market. The respected UK analyst group AMEC predicts that global demand for paper and packaging will soar from 400 million tonnes to almost 600 million tonnes in twenty years. In total, forestry products is a $600 billion industry which has doubled in size over the past 6 years.
And they are just the markets for products we all know.
Savvy entrepreneurs are already commercialising hundreds of innovative new uses and mixes of forest products. You can now choose glued laminated timber stronger than steel or pre-fabricated cross laminated timber which allows buildings to go up like a giant Lego kit. I even have on my desk a water bottle which looks like malleable plastic but which has been moulded from a tree (nano-crystalline cellulose to be exact).
And then there's energy. All over the world they are throwing up plants that convert the energy embodied in all sorts of organic waste (including forestry and saw milling offcuts) into power, heat and fuel. It is estimated that biomass, as it is called, represents a new energy market 90% the size of the energy currently consumed by the OECD energy market!
Why is the world turning so sharply toward forestry and forest products? Because in an environmentally pressured global environment that places a premium on the renewable resource, overlaid with a growing determination to dial back carbon consumption, timber is without peer. Although some man-made materials can match some of timber and papers' qualities, none of them even come close to a tree when it comes to sustainability.
Trees are solar powered. They store carbon. The products made from trees store carbon. If parts of a tree are burnt for power it replaces much more carbon intensive energy. Trees are replanted and they regrow. When properly managed trees are the quintessential renewable resource.
So internationally speaking it is far from sunset - it looks more like a new golden age dawning. The question is how does it look from home shores?
Unfortunately the answer is not so rosy.
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