In our first guest post, Luis Neves Silva, New Generation Plantations Lead, WWF responds to the recent Seeing the wood in the forests blog.
We applaud the recent post by Lauri Hetemäki, Marc Palahí and Robert Nasi on Seeing the wood in the forests. As a thinking-solutions space which brings together forestry companies, state forest agencies, conservationists and researchers, New Generation Plantations (NGP) fully supports the need to accelerate the transition from our current unsustainable and wasteful fossil-based economy to a circular bioeconomy. This shift can play a vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change, reversing biodiversity loss and reducing pollution.
The authors rightly point out that using wood in place of materials such as concrete, steel, plastics and textiles will require an increase in timber supply, although there are estimates of different orders of magnitude. This increase will be needed even if we make every effort to reduce our wasteful consumption patterns and use resources more efficiently, including reusing and recycling wood through a cascading approach.
But one part of the solution to sustaining this increased demand will be through the use of plantations. Today, planted forests cover about 7% of the global forest area and provide around half of all commercial timber. Their importance is only going to increase in the coming decades as demand for timber grows all over the world – for modern bioenergy, construction, packaging and many other sectors in a low-carbon bioeconomy.
While sustainable forest management in natural forests will, of course, continue to make an important contribution to global timber supply, plantations are an essential complement. Because there is a limit to how much more wood we can sustainably harvest from natural forests, either by intensifying harvesting in forests already managed for timber production or expanding into unlogged areas.
Timber production must be balanced with other considerations, including protecting biodiversity, increasing carbon storage, respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and maintaining and enhancing the many other services that forest ecosystems provide. In some cases, these imperatives will constrain timber yields, at least in the short term – for example if rotation times are increased to maximize carbon sequestration, or new protections are given to intact forest landscapes.
Plantations can produce a large proportion of the timber our future bioeconomy requires, quickly and using relatively little land. Intensively managed plantations in tropical regions produce wood fibre particularly efficiently: where a semi-natural conifer forest in the boreal region requires 720,000 hectares to produce a million tonnes of pulp a year, a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil can produce the same amount on just 100,000 hectares (Poyry, 2012). Rotation times can be as short as seven years, compared to many decades.
In some quarters, plantations still provoke controversy. Instances exist of plantations being established in place of natural forests and other important ecosystems, or without the consent of indigenous peoples and local communities. But this image does not reflect the reality of the new generation of plantations that we see today.
Figure 1: Plantations that follow NGP principles provide sustainable raw materials that can form the basis of a circular bioeconomy. In this illustration of cascading wood use, the re-use and recycling of wood products, combined with the reduction of waste, shows how the economic value of woody biomass can be maximised over multiple lifetimes.
Well-managed tree plantations in the right places that follow the NGP principles (see Figure 1) can make a positive contribution to the environment and to the lives of people living nearby, as well as supplying the wood fibre that our society needs. Numerous examples exist of plantations that have significant ecological value while also supporting community development, improving incomes and creating opportunities for smallholders and new SMEs.
In many regions there is potential to recover degraded landscapes through mosaics of new plantations, natural forest restoration and farming, in a way that supports industry, the environment and local people alike.
This has been successfully demonstrated in Brazil’s Atlantic forest, for example, where some 2 million hectares of former cattle pastures have been transformed into mosaic landscapes that combine stands of intensively managed eucalyptus with restored native rainforest. Brazil’s pulp companies are now innovating in new areas of the bioeconomy, from textiles and nanocellulose to bio-oil – and as their plantation area grows, they restore more native forest alongside.
But new plantations aren’t needed only to supply the materials for hi-tech biorefineries. In Africa, for example, over-harvesting for fuelwood is one of the biggest threats to natural forests: fast-growing plantations can take the pressure off by providing a source of biomass and support the development of a legal, sustainable charcoal industry. Developing economies need timber for many other purposes, from poles for expanding electricity grids to construction materials in rapidly growing cities. These needs will best be met through locally grown timber, rather than imports or industrial logging in biodiversity-rich forests.
Indeed, 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. And as the range of products made from wood increases, so too do opportunities for small producers and SMEs to innovate and capture value. In Vietnam, for example, timber cooperatives are changing the lives of small growers by enabling them to capture greater value.
In the light of the climate and biodiversity crises, the UN has declared 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Let’s use this opportunity to work together to restore habitats and ecosystem services, to draw down carbon, to provide rural development opportunities, and to grow the products that a 21st century society needs.
Photo: courtesy of New Generation Plantations