Planting more trees and using more wooden products in our daily lives can help us mitigate the effects of climate change, reverse biodiversity losses and reduce pollution – provided we do it right by following established guidelines.
The world’s leading scientists have given their assessment on the health of the planet, and the verdict is not good, as we could have expected. Drawing on more than 1,500 academic papers, the 2019 UN Global Assessment Report set out the symptoms of a dangerously, and sick world.
It warns that nature is in alarming decline, with human activity having already significantly altered three-quarters of all land areas. Biodiversity is suffering, with more than a million plant and animal species threatened with extinction. The loss of nature’s life-support systems puts humanity’s own future in jeopardy.
The report follows warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have just a decade to save the world from climate catastrophe. Meanwhile, the world’s cities generate 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste every year, and each of us eats a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.
Every passing day brings new calls for action – not just from environmental NGOs and extinction rebellion activists, but from governments, farmers, indigenous communities, multinational companies, finance institutions and many more. So, what can we do to bring Earth back to a better state of health?
The remedy includes drastically reducing and absorbing carbon emissions, restoring degraded ecosystems, cutting consumption, and shifting to an economy based on renewable resources, or a bioeconomy. And while there may be no miracle cure, there is one particularly efficacious remedy: planting trees.
Trees are the most effective technology we have for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So-called natural climate solutions – primarily tree planting, but also conservation and improved land management – offer a cost-effective way to deliver more than a third of the carbon dioxide reductions needed between now and 2030 in order to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
But forest ecosystems themselves are only part of the story. Just as important, but far less talked about, is the wider role of forests in supporting a sustainable low-carbon economy. While climate change may be the most pressing argument for shifting away from a fossil-based economy, there are other compelling reasons for increasing our use of renewable and bio-based resources.
Globally, extraction of materials jumped from 27 billion tonnes in 1970 to 92 billion tonnes in 2017, and could reach 190 billion tonnes by 2060 if today’s trends continue. The extraction, production and disposal of the materials we use bring a host of environmental and social impacts – from the effects of sand mining on riverbeds and coastal areas, to cement and steel manufacturing processes (each responsible for around 8% of global greenhouse-gas emissions), to the devastating extent of plastic pollution in the ocean.
Substituting wood for fossil fuels or energy-intensive materials such as cement, steel, aluminium, plastics or cotton can bring considerable benefits. A recent review of more than 50 studies found that, for every tonne of carbon in wood products used in place of other materials, overall carbon emissions were reduced by 1.2 tonnes on average. The calculations are complex and the figures vary between different products and technologies, but in general wood products have lower emissions during the production process, and can be recycled and eventually burnt to generate energy at the end of their useful life. Timber products also store carbon throughout their lifetime – which in some cases may be decades or even centuries.
Some of the most striking benefits are already being seen in the construction sector. Most building components – from structural elements and exteriors to floors and insulation – can be made from wood, and technological advances are opening up new opportunities. Engineered wood products like cross-laminated timber panels (multiple layers of wood glued together at right-angles to form super-strong panels) allow for larger and taller wooden buildings.
Timber tower-blocks are already a reality. From Vancouver to Norway to Japan – these structures vary from a couple of storeys to the ambitious Sumitomo Forestry Company’s 350 metre tall building.
The benefits of using wood differ according to the material it is replacing. A study by the European Forest Institute suggests that every tonne of wood used in place of a tonne of concrete reduces CO2 emissions by 2.1 tonnes over the product’s life cycle. Given that 4.6 billion tonnes of cement is poured into concrete structures every year, there is huge climate mitigation potential in replacing concrete with timber where possible. It’s been estimated that replacing conventional construction materials with wood could remove 0.5-1 gigatonnes of CO₂ from the atmosphere, and save up to 31% of global CO₂ emissions.
Wood also plays an important role in meeting global energy needs. Today, bioenergy provides around 13% of total global energy consumption, and is by far the largest source of renewable energy. By comparison, hydropower contributes 3% to the global energy mix, and all other renewables combined just 2%. While this figure also includes bioenergy from crops like sugarcane, agricultural residues and municipal waste, 87% of the total comes from solid biomass. The vast majority of this – about 80% of all global bioenergy – is in the form of burning wood for cooking and heating, primarily in Asia and Africa.
In fact, according to FAO statistics, around half of the nearly 4 billion cubic metres of annual global wood production is burnt for energy. Inefficient use of wood can contribute to overharvesting, forest degradation, loss of ecosystem services, and indoor and outdoor air pollution.
However, there is huge scope to lessen the environmental and social impacts of traditional biomass use – including more efficient stoves, using offcuts and recycled wood products rather than virgin timber, and substituting other renewable energies for cooking and heating where suitable.
Modern bioenergy will be a vital part of a future low-carbon, fully renewable energy mix, particularly for functions not so easily filled by other renewable energy sources like wind and solar power – including heat, baseload electricity and transport fuel. While wood will continue to be burnt in home stoves and power stations, new thermo- and bio-chemical processes are opening up possibilities for producing liquid fuels from wood products.
Some companies are already producing biodiesel from tall oil and black liquor, residues from the pulp-making process. And the range of products that can be derived from cellulose and lignin – the main components of wood – is increasing all the time.
As fossil fuels are phased out, we will see oil refineries replaced by biofineries which use wood and other biomass to make everything we currently derive from petroleum – not just fuels, but paints and adhesives, asphalt and detergents, and various types of plastic. With plastic pollution increasingly capturing the headlines, biodegradable bioplastics offer obvious environmental benefits.
Viscose and Tencel fibres derived from cellulose can substitute for cotton, the cultivation of which uses huge quantities of arable land, water and agrochemicals. Other products derived from wood that are under development or already on the market range from food additives and hygiene products to pharmaceuticals and LCD screens.
It’s clear then, that we’re likely to be using more wood in future. Global timber demand is projected to almost quadruple from 3 401 million cubic metres in 2010 to over 13 000 million in 2050. So where is all this wood going to come from? There is a limit to how much more timber we can sustainably harvest from natural forests, either by intensifying production in already managed forests or expanding into unlogged areas.
Forests are not simply timber factories: they provide a habitat for four-fifths of all land species, support the livelihoods of nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, and provide us all with vital services, from supplying fresh water and controlling erosion to regulating the climate.
New plantations offer an important part of the solution. Today, planted forests cover only about 7% of the global forest area, but provide around half of all commercial timber. While intensively managed plantations of eucalyptus or pine are a highly efficient way of producing timber, they have at times provoked controversy. Instances exist of plantations being established in place of natural forests and other important ecosystems, or without the consent of indigenous people and local communities.
But this picture is changing. In response to these challenges, international organisations such as FAO have worked with governments to create and support voluntary guidelines for responsible management of planted forests. The New Generation Plantations platform, convened by WWF in collaboration with leading companies and government forest departments, envisions tree plantations that, as well as providing an efficient supply of timber, make a positive contribution both to the environment and to the lives of people living nearby.
Numerous examples demonstrate that well-managed plantations in the right places can have significant ecological value while also supporting community development, improving incomes and creating opportunities for smallholders and new SMEs. Collectively, the NGP participants manage around 11 million hectares of land, of which highly productive plantations make up a little under half: the rest consists of natural and restored forests, wetlands and other habitats, and agricultural land that is often managed by local communities.
In Brazil’s Atlantic forest, for example, some 2 million hectares of former cattle pastures have been transformed into mosaic landscapes that combine stands of intensively managed eucalyptus, which can be ready to harvest in just seven years, with restored native rainforest. In Chile, following the devastating forest fires of 2017, natural forests and plantations are being sensitively restored to strengthen landscape and socioeconomic resilience.
In Africa and Asia, agroforestry schemes that combine trees and crops are improving soils and farmers’ incomes. In the UK and New Zealand, commercial timber plantations host walking routes and mountain biking trails, as well as supporting rare species and important habitats.
The challenge now is to replicate these successful examples on a much larger scale. Preserving the nearly 4 billion hectares of existing forests is crucial, but so too is restoring some of what we have lost. Estimates suggest that anywhere from 1 billion to 6 billion hectares of land globally is in a degraded state, and plantations can be an effective and economically viable way to bring them back into productive use.
Governments and other organisations have made impressive commitments to restore forests under the Bonn Challenge – an international effort with a goal of bringing 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested land under restoration by 2030. So far, around half that total has been pledged.
However, these commitments have not yet been matched by action, and investments in the forest sector remain woefully inadequate: only about 1% of international development funding for climate mitigation is directed towards forest restoration and conservation, while the USD20-billion invested in sustainable forestry and agriculture since 2010 is dwarfed by the USD777-billion poured into sectors that drive deforestation.
Meanwhile, fossil fuels were subsidised to the tune of USD300-billion globally in 2016, making it harder for bio-based alternatives to compete and to attract the investment they need to develop. Nevertheless, numerous countries and regions have launched bioeconomy strategies and action plans. The shift to a bioeconomy offers particular opportunities for developing countries with limited fossil resources but plenty of land.
It can support a truly sustainable model of rural development, increasing the value generated by forestry and agriculture while also – if done right – helping restore land, enhance ecosystem services and reduce carbon emissions. For the forestry sector, a bioeconomy represents a switch from present high-volume, low-value commodities to an enormous range of high-value, low-volume products. This presents opportunities for small producers, and SMEs in particular, to innovate and capture value.
As the health of our civilisation and planet continues to worsen, incremental change is no longer enough: bold new approaches are needed. A bioeconomy, supplied by a new generation of plantations that benefit people and the environment, needs to be at the heart of the solution.
Just imagine what that could look like. A world where wildernesses are left to nature, while responsibly managed and restored forests and a new generation of highly productive tree farms supply the products that a 21st century society needs. A world where raw materials are grown, not mined, in a way that helps to restore ecosystems, reduce emissions and improve local livelihoods. A world where those materials are reused, recycled or used to generate energy at the end of their lifecycle. What a wonderful world that would be.
New Generation Plantations platform – IUFRO Task Force ‘Resilient Planted Forests Serving Society & Bioeconomy’: Benjamin Caldwell (FAO), Bjorn Sundberg (Stora Enso), Brent Corcoran (Mondi), Cecilia Alcoreza (WWF), Christophe Orazio (IEFC), Denis Popov (Mondi), Elaine Dick (FR), Elisabeth Potzelsberger (BOKU), Francisco Rodriguez (CMPC), Helena Almeida (ISA), Jaboury Ghazou (UEd), Juan Anzieht (ARAUCO), Karen Mo (WWF), Luis Silva (WWF), Manuel Guariguata (CIFOR), Margarida Tomé (ISA), Miguel Bugalho (ISA), Mike May (Suzano), Nathalia Granato (IBA), Paula Guimarães (TNC), Peter Freer-Smith (UCDavis), Pierre Bouillon (FAO), Roodney Keenan (UMelb), Wu Shuirong (CAF)