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Australian log exports unlikely to reach historic highs

4 July 2023

At the end of 2020, China banned the importation of plantation pine logs from Australia, stating that bark beetles had infected the logs. This decision resulted in a collapse of Australian exports as China was practically the only log market being served. As a result, total shipments from Australia fell from over 3.5 million m3 annually during 2016-2020 to less than 400,000 m3 in 2022 (see chart).

When the ban was implemented, Australian log traders started exploring alternative destinations in Asia and, in 2021, shipped about 1.2 million m3 of logs to previously insignificant markets, including India, South Korea, and Vietnam (as reported on the new platform WoodMarket Prices (Wood Resources International). However, the jump in shipments to those markets was short-lived, and a sharp drop occurred in 2022, partly because of increased competition from US log exporters.

The decline continued in early 2023, with only 27,000 m3 being shipped in the first three months of the year, compared to 112,000 m3 during the same period in 2022. Australia will likely have opportunities to reestablish trade with China now that the ban has been lifted, but shipments will probably not reach levels seen in the past.

Previously, a large share of the pine logs Australia shipped to China was of lower grades, close to “pulplog” material-type wood, which was less desirable for Australian sawmills. However, the domestic industry in Australia will increasingly compete with the export market for small-diameter logs as log supply tightens across the country.

With the limited expansion in pine plantations over the past 30 years (0.3% annually), the domestic timber supply is unlikely to increase in the coming decades. In addition, many large pine plantations were destroyed by fires in 2019 and 2020 (roughly 6% of the plantation area), which will even further limit log availability for domestic sawmills in the short- and medium-term horizons.

Three options can meet a predicted increase in lumber demand in Australia: 1. Upgraded sawmills that can utilize smaller logs and increase their lumber yields, 2. Increased lumber imports, and 3. Decreased log exports.

However, with the outlook of softwood lumber prices increasing worldwide, the importation of lumber from Europe could become costlier. This scenario could open opportunities for shipments of logs and lumber from New Zealand to Australia in the coming decade (this would require higher timber qualities than for logs shipped to China). To have sufficient domestic softwood timber supply longer-term, the conifer plantation area in Australia must be significantly increased.

Source: Wood Resources International, www.WoodPrices.com

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