The exploitation of Italian woodlands. What is the state of the industry?

From 1990 to 2010, Italian wooded areas increased by nearly 20%, compared to the 5% increase measured over the same period in the entire European Union (Global Forest Resource Assessment, 2010). Yet this expansion went hand-in-hand with reduced forestry activity in our woods: the volume of wood harvested decreased from 9.7 million m3 in 1995 to 7.7 million m3 in 2012 (Eurostat, 2013). As may be seen from the following chart, the Italian forest economy has ample margin for development in view of better exploitation of the country’s natural resources.

What is the value of active woodland management?

Woods and forests, which in Italy represent the most extensive terrestrial ecosystem (34% of national territory), by virtue of their “multi-functional” nature represent concentrated examples of ecosystem services, as defined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA, 2005), to which international, European and national policies are dedicating increasing attention. The concept of forest multi-functionality inevitably brings us back to the dualism of environmental protection and economic development, and, above all, efforts towards their sustainable coexistence. In regard to the environmental multi-functionality of Italy’s forest assets, issues such as the fight against climate change, the protection of biodiversity and the conservation of habitats and landscapes, the generation of renewable energy, water purification and flow regulation, the limitation of the processes of erosion and desertification of soil, hydro-geological protection and the prevention of natural disasters, and historic, tourist and recreational use are expressions of that public interest of a primary, absolute constitutional value in which active forest management (in juxtaposition to the abandonment of silviculture and land management) is regarded as one of the fundamental tools for safeguarding and exploiting woodlands, in the interest of the community and the legally protected asset represented by woodlands, in view of their economic and productive functions.

Industrial development and the massive exodus from mountain and hill areas to large industrial centres have resulted in a sharp decline in agriculture, forestry and pasturing, which are fundamental not only to the production of foods and other goods, but more generally to management of the territory and the resulting normal monitoring and maintenance activities. This phenomenon has resulted firstly in a slow, gradual expansion of woodlands to the detriment of abandoned agricultural areas and pastures, more than doubling the area of Italy’s woodlands from the nearly 5 million hectares observed in 1950 to the over 11 million today.

The generation of energy using biomass is a carbon neutral process. Why is that?

The use of biomass for energy purposes is one of the strategies promoted by many countries to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. Vegetal biomass is considered a renewable energy source created by a natural chemical process, photosynthesis. Through photosynthesis, plants turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into vegetal biomass. Since it is a renewable source, biomass is also considered to be carbon-neutral. The concept of carbon neutrality consists of attributing zero greenhouse gas emissions to the use of a certain material. In the case of biomass, the concept is based on the hypothesis that the carbon released during combustion does not contribute to increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, but rather is re-absorbed through the regrowth of vegetation. This absorption does not occur in the case of fossil fuels, since the time required to form them is much longer.

Is it true that pellet-based systems produce the same emissions as wood-based systems?

Not all wood-based biomass is equal, and the same is true of the resulting emissions. The type of biomass, along with the type of heating system used, result in differences at the level of polluting emissions, in some cases of a significant degree, meaning that pellets should not be considered equivalent to firewood. The pellets used in modern furnaces offer much higher performance than traditional systems based on firewood.

Do pellets still provide a cost advantage despite the collapse of oil prices?

Despite the collapse of international oil prices, the competitive advantage of pellets over fossil fuels remains decisive and essentially constant, particularly in comparisons with LPG and diesel fuel. Replacing a system powered by LPG or diesel with a modern pellet-based system therefore continues to be an economically rewarding choice for the end user.