Fibre Circle – the producer responsibility organisation (PRO) for the paper and packaging sector – was an official sponsor of the South African pavilion at COP26 and co-hosted a side event in collaboration with the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA).
Moderated by Jane Molony from Fibre Circle, PAMSA and Derek Nighbor, President and CEO of FPCA and ICFPA, the event served as an ideal platform to present and promote the use of managed forests and fibre as a sustainable solution to the ‘Just Transition’. This encompassed the multiple aims of economic recovery, the circular economy and practical resistance to climate change.
A fitting contribution to the Glasgow conference in November, the session provided an ongoing link with the historical Paris Agreement forged at COP19. The terms of this protocol specifically emphasised the urgent need to protect and develop the world’s forests and other essential carbon reservoirs.
The benefits and opportunities offered to the planet through the conservation and development of forestry and the use of derived products, were espoused in a series of presentations delivered by leading figures from the interrelated worlds of forestry, ecology and timber, and pulp and paper products.
Dr. E. Ashley Steel, Forest Statistics Expert at the FAO and one of the panellists, launched a report on behalf of the FAO – Forest Products in the Global Bioeconomy: Enabling substitution by wood-based products and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. This report addresses the role of forest products in replacing fossil-based and GHG-intensive products and seeks to suggest recommendations to strengthen the contribution of substitution by forest products to sustainable development. The report was compiled in collaboration with the European Forest Institute.
The other esteemed panellists were Dr. Peter Holmgren, a long-term advocate of active forestry and specialist adviser in matters related to sustainability and climate change; Angela Graham-Brown from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and Dr Jacob Crous from Sappi Southern Africa, all of whom brought incredibly diverse perspectives of how managed forests are pivotal to a better world and greener economy.
Fragmented climate policy
Dr. Holmgren pointed out that there is a structural problem to the way the circularity of the forest bioeconomy is considered. The forests – or land sectors – are viewed in isolation of the rest of the economy and cut off from their value chain. “We can miss a lot of opportunities in climate policy because of this divide, and the policies end up being fragmented and incomplete. Holmgren noted that the carbon recycling by forests is often left out of the equation which tends only to factor in the circular economy on the products side. “It is the harvesting of wood that makes everything possible and not enough attention is paid to this fact,” said Holmgren.
“We need to restore forest circularity,” he asserted. He explained that active forestry with efficient value chain gives us two major climate benefits: stable and increasing storage of carbon in forest and products, and avoided fossil/process emissions as wood-based products displace fossil-based alternatives.
Complex landscape of keeping trees standing or harvesting them
Graham-Brown continued the thread, outlining the complex landscape of forestry by clarifying the unique contributions of the forest sector. As such, she outlined three key levers of impact: decarbonisation– reducing operational emissions; sequestration/storage– increasing carbon removals; substitution– growing the circular bioeconomy.
“The levers are simultaneous and the effects are cumulative,” she said. “The third lever requires more uptake of wood-based products in both traditional and new markets, and maximising material efficiency through re-use and recycling.
Store the carbon in products, not in ageing plantations
Dr. Jacob Crous, Programme Leader, Land Management, Sappi Southern Africa, took the audience through the history of industrial forest plantations and their carbon capabilities. He highlighted a number of key points with his point of departure being that sustainable intensification protects natural forests and creates a large carbon pool.
He explained that there is a compromise between maximising carbon stocks and carbon flows (uptake), however a carbon storage strategy is important in maintaining plantations in an active growing phase to maximise carbon uptake. Dr. Crous reiterated to his previous speakers that storing carbon in harvested wood products is better than storing the carbon in the plantation as this has greater risk of release back to the atmosphere due to pests, disease and other disturbances.
Knowing what we know and understanding what we don’t
In introducing FAO’s new report, Dr. Steel shared some of the pathways to enable substitution by wood products to contribute to the SDGs. Of importance is the foster of research in product and market level substitution effects and international cooperation among scientific, industrial and financial institutions.
As a sector there is a lot we do know. FAO is the custodian of the forest product statistics database. “Estimation of carbon storage or substitution requires detailed parameters and these parameters are naturally difficult to estimate,” said Dr. Steel, adding that they are embedded in country-level GHG accounting, decision-making and product declarations.
The report concluded that wood products are generally associated with lower GHG emissions over their entire life cycle as compared to products made from non-renewable or emissions-intensive materials.
“We are going to move forward efficiently and effectively if we isolate and communicate on what we don’t know”, she said. Aspects such as regrowth rate of harvested forests, soil storage of carbon, species and location-specific parameters and impacts of changes in production and harvesting on the full range of ecosystem services provided by forests all have implications on decision-making around substitution. “Uncertainty is information that we can help identify worst case scenarios, avoid risks and over-confidence,” said Dr. Steel. “Efficient scepticism also helps us ask the right questions.”
She concluded that carbon will be stored or emitted based on our individual and collective decisions.
Discussions were both complementary and enlightening as the experts explored the benefits of using sustainable methods to replace fossil-based resources, using persuasive statistics to support their arguments.
Derek Nighbor followed the presentations with a Q&A with the speakers. “We are dealing with a dynamic and complex landscape, and multiple values, along with immovable interests that are coming at issues with a narrow perspective.” Watch the full session here: https://youtu.be/zRZqaMwhYSs