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Department of Plant Sciences


The Global Wood Security Centre – knowledge and innovation to protect the world’s timber supplies

David Edwards, Head of Tropical Ecology and Conservation Group


Timber is a critical global resource that generates over $1.5 trillion USD of economic value per year. Demand is projected to triple by 2050. 

Traditional methods of wood production are at risk. Our recent research (Bousfield et al. 2023) shows that between 2001-2021 an area of timber-producing forest the size of Great Britain with a value of $45-77 billion was lost to wildfires, with the rate of loss increasing as climate change intensified. Concurrently, timber-producing forests are being decimated by pests and diseases, and our research shows that timber-producing tropical forests are hotspots of conversion to agriculture (Zhang et al. 2021), and that climate change will increase competition for land as northern wood-producing forests also become suitable for agriculture (in prep). The future of wood production is thus insecure. 

We urgently need to move towards more sustainable and resilient production of wood by understanding how the nexus of wildfire, pests and diseases, and agricultural expansion will affect wood production, and how associated losses generate global market feedback with severe environmental consequences. Many of the trees we plant today will not be harvested for 20 to 100 years, and the decisions needed to ensure global wood security must be taken in the next few years to avert major global shortfalls over the coming decades. 


Why establish the Global Wood Security Centre?

The new Global Wood Security Centre is a cross-disciplinary research centre that brings together biologists, environmental scientists, forestry scientists, computer scientists, engineers, economists, and social scientists to address these research challenges together, and will work with policymakers and producers to roll-out climate-smart timber production innovations and systems. 

The key question the Centre will attempt to answer is whether intensification of wood production is resilient given the emerging risks to production. We need to understand how and where this nexus of risks will drive losses and what the environmental and societal consequences will be. My big fear is that forestry will increasingly focus on tropical rainforests, where more aseasonal climates and long growing seasons point to wildfire resilience and rapid, intensive production, but at the cost of huge areas of the most biodiverse habitat on Earth: old-growth tropical forests. 


Why develop the Centre at Cambridge?

My recent appointment as Professor of Plant Ecology in the Department of Plant Sciences offers a fantastic springboard from which to build academically excellent cross-disciplinary research networks and is a platform from which to engage end-users and engender positive change. 

Cambridge has a globally-unique combination of world-leading researchers and links with research end-users, allowing it to become the nexus of the Centre’s work. The Centre will draw upon Cambridge’s significant and wide-ranging research expertise in conservation, forest sciences, and plant breeding, as well as environmental economics, engineering, politics, and social science prowess in many of its other departments and institutes, including the School of Biological Sciences’ grand challenge on Molecular Biology for Climate Solutions, the Department of Geography’s work on Climate and Environmental Dynamics, the Climate and Sustainability theme in the Department of Computer Science and Technology, and the Cambridge Zero initiative. The Centre will also benefit from integral involvement in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, enabling opportunities for direct uptake and wide-scale dissemination of findings. For instance, in revealing the high conservation value of intensively selectively logged forests in Borneo, the Sabahan government upgraded over 300,000 hectares of logged forests to Class 1 (total) protection.  We have also developed methods to detect selective logging in the Amazon using satellite imagery and trained over 100 staff at Peru’s forest oversight agency (OSINFOR) in their use, resulting in OSINFOR identifying over 300 km of illegally logged timber and multiple prosecutions of illegal operators.  


Which research areas will the Centre focus on?

We must find solutions to four fundamental cross-disciplinary research gaps to deliver global wood security in the 21st century:

(1)    We must develop the science of how and where increased risks from fire, pests and diseases will affect wood production. 

(2)    We must generate projections of how and where global timber markets will respond to wood shortfalls, driven by environmental stressors and crop expansion, and how these changes will affect the environment. 

(3)    We must develop understanding of how society and its relationships with wood will respond to changed timber production dynamics under increasing wildfire, pests and diseases, and competition with farming. 

(4)    We must make technological advances to reduce waste via better recovery of wood and to reduce losses to wildfire, pests and diseases, such as new and improved technologies for rapid fire, pest, and disease detection and suppression.


How do you envisage the world’s forestry sector in 2050?

By 2050, we foresee a forestry sector that is more resilient to natural and economic shocks, and that can deliver upon core societal and environmental targets under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their successors, as well as global restoration agendas such as the Bonn Challenge. This vision will be delivered by increasing collaboration with government, NGOs and forestry businesses in rolling-out the Centre’s social, management, and engineering solutions to secure global wood production. 

Key milestones include major technological developments in: (1) modelling frameworks to predict wildfire, pest, disease and conversion-driven timber losses under climate change, across different wood-production systems, and via market feedback; (2) tree breeds for improved pest, disease, and ideally fire resilience; and (3) automated tools for rapid detection and tackling of fire and pest and disease outbreaks. They also include longer-term outcomes in the policy and industry space, via co-development and adoption of social policies and new technologies, ensuring the timely uptake of new advances. 

Solving this challenge will ensure future global wood security, and the contribution of wood production to terrestrial carbon stocks and halting the biodiversity extinction crisis. Without the knowledge and exposure generated by the Global Wood Security Centre, the world will risk damaging losses of timber supply, driven by wildfires, pests, diseases, and conversion of forestry to farmland. Such losses could stimulate further degradation of remaining tropical forests, threatening the ability of these vital ecosystems to stabilise the climate and support much of the world’s remaining biodiversity.