21 April, 2022
EARTH DAY 2022 - A climate case for wood, pulp and paper
It's fair to assume that most
people, when considering ways to fight climate change, don't immediately
think of forestry. But there is a unique climate case for sustainable
wood - it is the only material that can naturally and significantly
decarbonise our planet by driving down demand for illegally harvested
wood, and provide functional alternatives to non-renewable materials
that have significantly higher environmental footprints.
"Debunking the notions that industrial forestry is a destructive
force isn't easy, but the global forestry and forest products sector
continues to tackle these misconceptions," says Jane Molony, executive
director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA).
"We stand firm in the fact that a holistic, sustainable and circular
forest bioeconomy is essential to fighting climate change."
To understand why paper and wood products are vital to a lower carbon
footprint, we can borrow from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard
Feynman's assertion that trees don't grow from the ground, they grow
from the air. The Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) Forest
Resource Assessment 2015 states that world forests were sequestering
close to 300 Gigatonnes of carbon.
Commercial forestry achieves this both through growing trees, which
absorb carbon dioxide, but also by harvesting them at the right time,
with carbon being stored in harvested wood products.
"Harvesting makes space for younger trees that take up more carbon
dioxide than their older counterparts," says Molony, adding that the
climate benefit is thus evident in two places. "Through a stable and
increasing carbon storage in the forest itself, and in the forest
Molony notes, "Many vilify the forestry sector without understanding
its renewability and circularity, and fail to recognise its ability to
store carbon and crucially, how it helps to cut back on fossils." That
said, feforestation, however, must be reduced in the context of indigenous or tropical forests, and illegal wood trade.
Climate change is not caused by people in developing countries
felling trees. Instead, it's caused by high- and middle-income countries
burning fossils. We need to focus on displacing these fossil emissions
by using wood's inherent power as the ultimate renewable.
"We do this, first, by increasing uptake of wood products in
traditional markets. Organisations like FAO recognise wood as a viable
substitute for carbon-intensive materials such as steel and concrete in
construction, and plastic and textiles in everyday applications. It is
also present in everyday life in the form of paper, tissue, packaging
and cellulose products," comments Molony.
"Second, we need to explore the potential of wood fibre and process
waste in new applications, such as the use of lignin for batteries for
electronics, or extracting sugars and hemicellulose for bio-based
"Third, we need to ensure we have enough trees to supply the increased demand for wood-based products."
South African ecosystems are not tree dominated. "We only have half a
million hectares of indigenous forests, which are fragmented and occur
along the south and eastern coastal inland mountains. Importantly, they
South Africa plants fast-growing exotic tree species to produce
timber, and currently have 1.2 million hectares of these industrial
plantations. Also, 25% of forestry owned land is not planted with trees,
but home to wetlands, grasslands, indigenous forests and area of high
Tree breeding and sustainable intensification (planting more
productive trees on less land) are actively being practised in South
Africa. The breeding, selecting and testing of new hybrid varieties is
aimed at increasing pulp yield per hectare across diverse climatic
regions. Trees are also bred for superior wood properties and resistance
to biotic and abiotic threats including frost, drought, pests and
"As a sector, we can demonstrate that having commercial plantations
has prevented the increased use, destruction, and degradation of natural
forests. This speaks to the heart of the way South African forests are
managed - sustainably and responsibly," suggests Molony.
It also speaks to the fact that the sector doesn't harvest swathes of
trees, leaving the land desolate for years. Forestry companies have
nurseries growing more trees, that will take the place of those gone
before, most often at a ratio of 2:1. Even harvesting residues are left
behind to enhance soil fertility and protection.
Finally, harvesting wood makes the circular bio-economy possible. "If
we don't have sustainably grown and sourced wood, we can't replace
fossil-based products and do all of the things that climate adaptation
FAO, Global Forest Resource Assessment, 2015. The exact figure is 296 Gt.