International illegal logging activity is worth an estimated $30 billion to $100 billion annually, at least double the value estimated just months ago, the U.N. Environment Programme and the international police organization Interpol have found.

The report's estimates are a significant update from a World Bank report released in May, which placed the value of illegal logging at $15 billion to $20 billion. The report used data from an older World Bank report from 2006.

"Since that time, however, the size of the timber industry has grown significantly, both in quantity and in value," said Davyth Stewart, team leader for Interpol's Law Enforcement Assistance for Forests (LEAF) project. "The growth in the amount of legal logging has also been matched by a growth in illegal logging."

Despite the global economic downturn, demand for both legal and illegal wood has continued to grow.

"During economic downturns, one would normally expect consumption to decline," Stewart said. The United States, the European Union, Japan and China together import more than 80 percent of the world's illegal timber.

"Overall demand for timber products amongst those countries has continued to increase in recent years," Stewart said. "Any reduction in demand by one country is likely to be offset by continual growth in demand in others."

The United States is currently the only one of those countries with a ban on importing illegal timber. In 2008, the century-old Lacey Act was amended to include plant products in addition to the illegal import of animal species.

Lumber laundering grows
Although illegal logging seemed to decline throughout the past decade, this was simply a move to more sophisticated measures, the report found. Crimes to quietly ship illegal wood to major markets include document fraud, hacking of government websites and funneling food through legal tree plantations. The criminal element of logging has also had an effect on associated crimes, like murder and violence toward indigenous communities, Interpol noted.

An international coordination of law enforcement is needed to curb this loss, the report concluded.

The report found that up to 90 percent of logging has ties to organized crime in some tropical countries. Globally, illegal logging now accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the timber trade. The trade also hampers efforts to control deforestation with the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism, an international initiative to pay countries to preserve forests.

Curbing illegal logging could be a cost-effective measure to slowing the development of climate change. The British think tank Chatham House found that the cost of greenhouse gas reductions achieved through efforts to reduce illegal logging could be as little as 7 cents per metric ton of carbon. An incentive program like REDD+ costs $5 to $15 per metric ton.

Illegal logging depresses timber prices between 7 and 16 percent, according to the American Forest and Paper Association, flooding the market with cheap wood.

In June, Interpol's Environmental Crime Unit and the U.N. Environment Programme launched Project LEAF to tackle international forest crime. Last month, Project LEAF held a weeklong course in the Brazilian Amazon for officers from eight Latin American countries on skills to combat deforestation -- from learning how to read satellite images for signs of forest degradation to jungle survival.

In the past year, illegal logging has garnered growing attention. In 2009 and 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided Gibson Guitar factories for evidence that the company imported rare wood to make musical instruments. This sparked vehement criticism of the Lacey Act from conservative groups that see the measure as an infringement of business owners' rights.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Investigation Agency, an independent group, found that 35 percent of wood shipments between Peru and the United States contained protected species of mahogany and cedar (ClimateWire, April 11).

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500