The Ukrainian war has wreaked havoc on the global timber trade, and fears of deforestation have intensified as exports are disrupted, environmental protections are withdrawn and Kyiv diverts manpower from fighting wildfires to the front lines.

International sanctions imposed over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine have restricted supplies from Russia and Belarus, the world’s largest exporters of softwood lumber, while the conflict has severely hampered Ukrainian production.

The three countries accounted for a quarter of the global timber trade last year, according to industry data. They exported 8.5 million cubic meters of cork to Europe last year, accounting for just under 10 percent of the region’s demand. Russia alone is the world’s largest exporter of cork, producing around 40 million cubic meters per year.

Timber producing and exporting countries are taking steps to make up for the shortage, including relaxing some environmental protection measures to increase production.

Shortly after the February invasion, Kyiv lifted a rule banning the logging of protected forests in spring and early summer as part of a bill to boost the country’s defense capabilities during martial law, in part by boosting export earnings.

Environmental groups fear the decision could lead to massive losses in an area where illegal logging and poor forest management are already common.

“It’s obvious that all actions are for war and weapons,” said Yehor Khrenik of Ukraine’s Nature Conservancy. “It’s logical, but the environment is not a priority.”

Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection said earlier this year that sanctions gave the country an opportunity to increase its share of the European timber market, displace Russia and increase financing for post-war reconstruction efforts.

Other exporters, including Estonia, Finland and the United States, are also looking to increase logging.

In the U.S., the House Natural Resources Committee introduced the “No Tyrants Provide Timber” bill in April, which would ban the import of wood products from Russia and Belarus and authorize an equal amount of domestic logging in 2021 to make up for lost imports.

Earlier this month, Estonia announced the relaxation of logging restrictions on state-owned land, which holds about half of the country’s forests. As a result, the area of ​​land deforested will increase by almost a quarter to 2,400 hectares, said Siim Kuresoo, a conservation nonprofit group at Estonian Nature Foundation.

Meanwhile, the Helsinki-based Pellervo Institute for Economic Research said Finland expects logging to increase by 3 percent annually over the next two years.

The war poses a more immediate threat to Ukraine’s forests, with out-of-control wildfires — some of them sparked by the conflict itself — spreading to the woodlands of the front-line Donbas region. Satellite images showed thick smoke swirling over the forests around the Donets River.

“No one can fight them,” Hrenik said.

Forests along the Siverskyi Donets river in eastern Ukraine were destroyed or set on fire by explosions © Ukrainian Airborne Forces Command/Reuters

Other factors added to the chaos in the lumber market. Outbreaks of the spruce bark beetle have devastated forests in Central Europe and Alaska, prompting a surge in emergency logging to clear infected trees.

The upheaval caused by war and beetle infestations – and before that due to supply chain disruptions during the Covid-19 pandemic – has been a boon for European sawmills. High lumber prices mean Finnish groups Stora Enso and UPM both raised their 2022 outlooks this month despite inflationary pressures.

Countries looking to increase their harvests sustainably have little wiggle room.

For the first time this year, Finland’s forests have turned from carbon sinks to emissions sources, with trees being cut down intensively, official figures show. In 2021, a record 76 million cubic meters of forests were cleared in Finland – a 10% increase from the previous year.

At last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, more than 100 world leaders pledged to stop deforestation by 2030. But there is little guidance on how to implement that commitment.

“A considerable number of countries cannot produce as much as they can, so there is some potential for growth,” said Kim Carstenson, director-general of the Forest Stewardship Council. “But not everywhere and certainly needs to be looked at very carefully.”

Growing demand for renewable energy has also severely impacted forestry management, Kuresoo said. Most of the wood in Estonia is turned into wood pellets, which are burned as biofuel, he said.

The bioenergy industry has been lobbying the European Commission to maintain subsidies and recognize biofuels as a renewable energy source. But in May, the European Union’s environment commission voted to amend the renewable energy directive and scale back aid for burning forest biomass and other biofuels.

At the same time, the wood industry is keen to encourage the use of wood as a building material. Industry bodies say reducing the use of concrete and steel could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the global construction industry by 10 percent.

But Viveka Beckeman, director general of the Swedish Forest Industry Federation, said: “If we’re going to build more sustainably without increasing logging, that’s going to be a very difficult goal to achieve.”

Video: Can we save the world’s forests? | Financial Times Rethinking

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