It's time to think outside the wooden box if countries like Canada want to cut down on the use of fossil fuels as a energy and heat source, says Kai Mykkanen, the minister of foreign trade and development in Finland, who was speaking Wednesday in Thunder Bay, Ont., at the Biomass North conference.

"We never found oil and that's why we were forced to concentrate and focus more on how we can actually increase the value-added," he said.

In Canada, trees tend to be used for one purpose only, be it as lumber or in pulp and paper manufacturing.

But in Finland, the wood is used in both those areas as well as in energy production, and as a fuel source.

Use of forest products increasing in health care

"For instance, the newest large pulp factory opened a month ago in Finland and it actually creates two-and-a-half times more energy than it uses and also creates sidestreams of biofuels which then is used in our cars," he said.

Wood is being used to replace some plastic products in health care, while biomedical researchers are turning their attention to forest products for potential medicines, "although this is actually something where we probably have lost some knowledge of Indigenous people about how to use forests also as a source of healthiness," said Mykkanen.

It is now standard for Finnish communities with populations of 100,000 to 200,000 people to derive their heat entirely from the burning of biomass. Wood, in a variety of forms, has surpassed fossil fuels as Finland's number one source of heating fuel.

"In Finland we have 300 heating entrerpreneurs all over the country, and here [Canada] the concept is almost non-existent," he said.

To balance the higher consumption of wood, research has lead to changes in the way forests are managed. Now, they produce more wood, in a more sustainable way, said Mykkanen.

Government incentives 'key' to new products

Science has also lead to new devices to reduce the air pollution caused by burning.

"For instance, we have a company here which has quite unique solutions on how to recover the heat from smoke, which comes from the power plant and in addition to then clean the smoke. Nowadays, if you have a modern bioheating boiler in your town, you won't notice any smell or or air particulates from that plant," said Mykkanen.

But governments must be willing to invest in that type of innovation.

"The key is actually to have the right incentives in place, so if you want to diminish the share of fossil fuels and diesel used in heating then you must have some taxation or carbon pricing for biomass. All those tools have been in use in Finland for the past 20 years and that's created quite the revolution."