The European Commission awards the LIFE grant to a project to recover poplars in Vega de Granada, Spain

ProPopulus Team

The European Commission in its 2020 call, within its Action for Climate program and the Climate Change Mitigation sub-program, has recently awarded the LIFE grant to the project LIFE Wood for Future “Recovery of Granada-Vega poplar groves to boost biodiversity and long-term carbon capture through structural bioproducts”.

The project, presented by the consortium made up of the University of Granada (Andalusia, Spain) as coordinator of the project; the University of Santiago de Compostela, Structural Wood Platform (PEMADE), (Galicia, Spain); the Confederation of Organizations of Foresters of Spain (COSE); the Diputación de Granada, (Andalusia, Spain) and the environmental engineering company 3EData, (Galicia, Spain) will begin on 1st September and will last for four years.

We have talked with Antolino Gallego, professor of Materials and Structures Diagnosis at the University of Granada, the project coordinator, to explain the economic, environmental and social scope of this project. LIFE Wood for Future “Recovery of Granada-Vega poplar groves to boost biodiversity and long-term carbon capture through structural bioproducts”, aims to recover poplar plantations in Vega de Granada, where over the last 20 years, it has lost approximately 85% of this species of trees with important consequences for the economy and biodiversity of the area.

PPL – Can you describe what is the LIFE Wood for Future project “Recovery of the avenues of la Vega de Granada for the improvement of biodiversity and long-term carbon sequestration in structural bioproducts”?

AG – Basically Vega de Granada was an area that, traditionally for more than 100 years, was rich in poplar plantations for wood, the main destination of which was fruit boxes and pallets. These poplar groves have disappeared at a very high rate during the last two or three decades, which has resulted in a loss of the environmental values ​​that these types of crops provide, mainly biodiversity and everything that it implies, deterioration of the aquifers, of air quality and a lower absorption of CO2 with all the implications it has from the point of view of climate change.

This LIFE Project aims to put the issue on the table and carry out a series of actions to recover these poplar groves. These actions cover the entire value chain: from producers, with actions that promote associations, the creation of nurseries of certified plants, and the assessment of ecosystem services, including creating a system for measuring absorbed carbon and its sale by farmers to generate income, up to the characterization of poplar wood for structural purposes, not only for fruit boxes, but also to add value in the form of products of greater economic value and greater innovation. Among them, the strategic bet of this project are structural elements based on glued laminated poplar beams for mixed wood and concrete buildings. In this way we reduce the amount of concrete we use in construction because we incorporate part of the structural solution in wood. This is how we reduce the carbon footprint in construction, which is one of the ones with the greatest environmental impact.

What advantages does poplar wood offer in relation to other woods in its use for this type of structural products?

Mainly, the laminated beams that enter the Iberian Peninsula come from Central Europe. They are mostly coniferous and mostly spruce, which is a very abundant conifer, for example, in the Alps. The advantage of poplar over spruce is that it is fast growing, while spruce is slower growing, with all the implications that this has. The rapid growth of poplar implies fewer mechanical properties than spruce, lower density and lower elastic modulus. For this project we have selected a clone that has already been implanted in Spain, which has mechanical properties, especially in terms of elastic modulus and is higher than those of other clones.

The project also involves an important part, which is to implement modernized forestry in the Vega de Granada area with respect to what has traditionally been used. Forestry based on uncontrolled clones has been used, without certified plants, with all its negative implications, and with noticeably narrow planting frames, even three or four meters. That gives exceptionally low log plantations. And then another important part which is the pruning. It is about developing a more modern forestry, adapted to what is done in other regions of Spain and in other areas of Europe with larger plantation frames. Slightly higher cutting shifts, ten or eleven years old, compared to nine now, and higher quality pruning, so that the wood is better and with fewer knots. For all of this we have the experience and pilot plantations that the IFAPA (Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training of Andalusia) has, which is the one that contributes and will transfer all this knowledge in the project.

All this work to modernize forestry in Vega de Granada area, how do you plan to implement it? How do you plan to overcome resistance to change?

For that there are two tools. One is the success stories in the area because we cannot rely on success stories from other regions. For that we have IFAPA, which has pilot plantations that show that that kind of forestry works here. And what does this mean? Well, it obtains higher yields of wood and a better-quality wood, which therefore will have more buyers and thus the owner will have a better chance of selling it at a higher price. That is the first pillar. If that pillar, on which IFAPA has been working for the last 10 or 15 years, fails, everything fails, because the farmer is not going to take on any risk.

The other pillar is to offer them tools so that they see that this type of forestry is profitable from an economic point of view. For example, certified plants. An especially important part of the project is the implementation of pilot plantations. To do so, the project will finance part of the agricultural activities that these pilot plantations entail for a series of farmers, during the four years of its duration. This will make farmers enter the project and implement that kind of forestry. We are going to demand that the plants be certified, for example with controlled clones, because we are convinced that this is the way to obtain a better quality wood and to also achieve a sustainable forest certification, which right now in Granada is not available. This will lead to higher profitability for farmers and to a forestry that is environmentally sustainable and incorporates environmental values. For example, respecting the margins and promoting biodiversity. How are farmers going to be compensated for this? Well, within the project, we intend that the plans of the Autonomous Community of Andalusia for the new CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) incorporates poplar, but only as long as a series of agri-environmental measures are implemented by the farmers. These are the measures we will demand for pilot plantations. If the plantations comply with these measures, then they will enter the CAP, and they will receive a subsidy. This is particularly important for farmers and will make poplar competitive again against other crops such as asparagus, garlic, etc. That is going to be a great motivation.

In addition, we must convey to the farmers that if they implement that kind of forestry, with those plantation frames and pruning, their wood will be of higher quality. Therefore, they will be able to sell it at a higher price and it will be used for more products than the wooden boxes, for example a higher quality plywood for purposes other than fruit boxes, and it will also serve for innovative products such as laminated construction beams. Thus, they will have more possibilities of selling their wood.

Another thing we want to convey to farmers is that joining a producer association is advantageous and profitable for them: they will be able to sell their wood by lots and defend prices against intermediaries or buyers who offer less money. And also, because partnering will allow them to obtain a group sustainable forest certification at a more competitive price. To associate means implementing, in a way common to all members of the association, a sustainable forest management system.

What response do you foresee to all of these ideas?

During the preparation of the candidacy, we had to get in touch with the farmers and convey all these ideas to them to have their prior support and for the European Union to see that there are interested parties behind it. Many of the farmers see these proposals as the right path. Even some of them have seen a business opportunity in setting up certified plant nurseries. In fact, even before the project begins, certified plant nurseries have already been started in the area which will be of great utility for pilot plantations that will use zero-kilometre plant material. This shows that farmers perceive this project as the right way to go.

How has the wood industry received this initiative?

For time being, reception has been a cold. That is the most complex part. The industry is now going through a rough patch. . The demand for wood by the industry far exceeds the supply in Spain. It is a general problem for the entire industry and especially for Granada. And, in addition, with extremely negative forecasts for the next three or four years. That said, the industry does welcome a project that encourages plantations because they will have wood to continue their industrial activity, but it is cold when eyeing the new products that can be developed within the framework of this project. But that is exactly what we want with this project: to break the ice. That there are investors who establish a local industry that allows the development of these products. For that reason, we must increase the plantations, so that there is supply, and leave the product close to the CE market, that way the investor will see the business opportunity clearly.

In Vega de Granada, the situation of the industry is very alarming because there are only two poplar unwinding industries in the area.

A recently published study by the University of Granada, indicated that 85% of the poplars had disappeared in Vega de Granada in the last two decades. What is the reason for this decline and how long and to what extent can it be recovered?

The reason is that they have ceased to be profitable compared to other crops such as asparagus, garlic, and corn, which are annual, so the farmer receives an annual income versus an income every ten years. But if farmers see a clear profitability, they will plant poplars again. The chances of recovery? We would be happy with recovering 60% or 70% of what there was at the time. The current inventory of poplar groves, through the National Poplar Commission, indicates that Andalusia as a whole, but mainly in the Granada province, has over 45,000 hectares suitable for growing poplar. Aspiring to that is a long shot, but it is there. This is objective data. And the feeling is that when the crop is profitable people will plant again. In fact, that is already happening, not because of this LIFE project, which has not started yet, but because the price of wood has increased due to a shortage of wood. Consequently, the brutal decline in plantations stopped a couple of years ago and they are already increasing. Slowly, but increasing. But, of course, it is not because there has been innovation in the area, but because there is more demand, and the price has risen. We do not want the situation to repeat itself; that is that when the price falls poplar groves disappear again; we must provide tools for stability. As data, in the past there were 300 direct jobs in the poplar unwinding industry in Vega de Granada and now there are only two companies, and there may be about 30 jobs.

How has the construction industry received the possibility of using poplar as a structural element?

In general, there is a boom in the use of wood in construction. A boom that comes from the north of Central Europe and has arrived first from Northern Spain and then, to Southern Spain it has arrived more weakened, but is growing. One of the objectives of this project is to promote a drastic shift in construction work towards the wood-concrete concept which is also more sustainable, with a lower ecological footprint and a lower carbon footprint.

In general, the construction sector sees poplar as a species with low mechanical properties, low durability and unsuitable for structural use. That is a mantra that persists but that is based on a very simple concept that is that of sawn wood. The bet is to offer technological products. Plywood is a first quality technological product, and the products that we want to market are the so-called technical wood. The industrial process that wood undergoes to transform it into technical wood gives the material greater mechanical properties. If we put that together in a mixed wood-concrete solution, the structural responsibility does not fall only on poplar.

The strategic commitment of LIFE Wood for Future is to align wood with concrete to try to break with all these negative mantras about the use of poplar, and of wood in general, for construction. We want to enter in grand style hand in hand with the star of the construction: concrete. We believe this is an alliance that can be incredibly positive.

In terms of the population of Vega de Granada, what impact do you expect this project to have?

Vega de Granada is a highly anthropized area, with great human impact, with many urban plans and a lot of remarkably diverse agriculture but also affected by urban growth. We must manage to save this space, which is overly complex; where the environment must coexist with human beings, who are part of the environment, but are tremendously aggressive. And in this coexistence is where this project appears. We have to recover environmental values ​​that we have lost with the loss of the poplar groves. We expect a high environmental impact if we recover the poplar groves and also an economic impact, in the sense of trying to return to those 300 green jobs. And then a social impact, we want to have a social impact, with people identifying themselves with the poplar groves and the recovery of the environmental values of Vega de Granada.

The project will also carry out an action of enormous environmental and social interest. We will restore 2 km of the banks of the Dílar river, using native species of poplar and other trees and shrubs. For this, in addition to counting on the knowledge of IFAPA, we will have the knowledge, the will and the volunteer work of two associations with deep roots in Granada, such as Salvemos La Vega-Vega Educa, and the Association of Trees Against Climate Change (ACCC). We intend that the restoration of this highly degraded riverbank is also a model for other similar actions in the province. We will also assess the influence of poplar groves and the restoration of the riverbank in the improvement of animal biodiversity. This assessment will be carried out by the Department of Zoology of the University of Granada, also incorporating a Citizen Science initiative.

Although Vega de Granada is not an eminently rural area, there are other areas of Granada that are, in the north, and there we do believe that this project by replication and transferability can have an impact on rural development and creation of wealth to avoid depopulation in these areas, where it is very evident.

Why poplar?

Carbon can be absorbed by air, in the tree itself, or through the ground. Poplar, as it grows very fast, has a very high airborne absorption rate of between 15 and 30 tons per hectare per year. Much higher than other species. In the Granada area, as the growth is even faster, because we have water and many hours of sunshine, in addition to good soil in Vega de Granada area, the absorption rate is even higher. In documentation from the Junta de Andalucía there is talk of a rate, in Vega de Granada per hectare and year of 30 tons, which are very high rates.

But the project doesn’t just absorb carbon. We also fix carbon. A fruit box has a very short shelf life, several months. But a structural product lasts for several decades, so that the carbon that we have absorbed we would be fixed for many decades, with a high impact on mitigating climate change.

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