Recruiting lumberjacks, architects and carpenters to combat climate change

New FAO report explores how wood products add to forests’ role in carbon storage

20 July 2016, Rome - When protecting forests, don't forget the trees.

Forests have an acclaimed role as a carbon sink needed to tackle climate change. Less known is how their contribution can be scaled up even after a tree has been logged.

A new FAO publication, Forestry for a low-carbon future: Integrating forests and wood products in climate change strategies, offers insights in how to catalyse a "virtuous cycle" that exploits the life cycle of wood products - ranging from home furniture to wood pellets burned for fuel - to enhance and even multiply the well-known ability of forests to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere.

"Forests are at the heart of the transition to low-carbon economies," says René Castro-Salazar, FAO's Assistant Director-General for Forestry, "not only because of their double role as sink and source of emissions, but also through the wider use of wood products to displace more fossil fuel intense products."

Forests do herculean work in locking carbon dioxide into leaves, branches and soils, while deforestation and forest degradation account for up to 12 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The relative speed and cost-effectiveness with which forests make their presence - or absence - felt is one key reason they figure prominently in the plans countries are crafting to meet commitments made in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Designed primarily for policy makers and experts but of interest to architects and the energy industry, the report - the fruit of innovative collaboration involving more than 100 experts - looks at how forests can be harnessed to the global climate change challenge.

Its guiding message is that optimal engineering of the carbon lifecycle of trees and wood products allows, over the long term, for sustainably harvested forests to complement and even enhance the climate mitigation benefits provided by conserved forests.

Using trees to shrink carbon footprints

Thanks to technological advances and cleaner, greener methods of processing, the industrial use of wood can contribute to shrinking carbon footprints compared to the use of fossil fuels.

Wood is the main solid biofuel, accounting for 69 percent of the world's renewable energy supply. It is the main household fuel for around 2.4 billion people around the world -  more efficient cookstoves could lower the almost two billion tonnes of annual global carbon dioxide emissions they use to prepare food and drinking water.

Meanwhile, where forests are sustainably managed and relatively abundant, woody biomass - usually in the form of pellets, often made from recycled or waste products - can serve as a large-scale energy source. Promoting wood as a renewable energy source may seem counterintuitive, but 1.86 billion cubic meters of wood - more than half the world's wood output - is already used for that purpose, highlighting the potential gains from more sustainable management.

More directly, when wood is transformed into furniture, floors, doorways or beams to be used in construction, it does not instantly oxidize but continues to store carbon. FAO calculates that carbon storage by such wood products in fact offset nearly all of the GHG emissions related to their manufacture.

The net emission footprint of a wooden desk - especially an antique! - is lower than that of modern office furniture made of steel and plastic derivatives with fewer end-of-life disposal options. The same is generally true of many wood-based construction materials when subject to life-cycle assessments.

Fostering access to and adoption of "cascading biomass" options - for example, recycling wood used in construction for furniture or packaging and then again used as an energy source - could lead to reducing carbon emissions by up to 135 million tonnes as well as easing the need for landfills.

Today there is growing evidence that wood-based products are highly competitive with alternative construction materials. The carbon balance of a timber-frame building is only half that of a concrete-frame structure.

While wood has a long history as a green building material in countries with boreal forests - more than 80 percent of houses in the United States and Scandinavia are wood-framed, compared to only four percent in France - its acceptance could grow more quickly with the right policy nudges.

Carbon pricing mechanisms, university curricula, public procurement policies and even insurance rules are crucial to loosen the "technological lock-in" exercised by traditional systems based on bricks, cement and steel, the report says.

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
Craftsmen at work in Kinshasa.