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A Bio-Based Future to Battle Climate Change


This bridge in Storrs, CT, is made of locally harvested oak.

When people think of global climate solutions they may think of forests but most probably don’t appreciate the critical connection to sustainable forest products. However, sustainable forest management and bio-based wood products, are some of the few readily available, actionable solutions that have an immediate impact on reducing the greenhouse gas build up in our atmosphere. Other products we use in our daily lives like plastic, steel and concrete are the culprits in the rising global carbon emissions. Wood, in comparison, is grown in renewable forests and has a much, much lower carbon footprint. The problem over the last 50 years is that the use of the more carbon polluting materials has far outpaced -and even replaced- normal historic uses of wood. Is the handle of your snow shovel made of wood? It used to be.

A recent publication by Dovetail Partners reveals this alarming trend. During the time period 1961-2017, global population grew 2.45 times. During this same period the consumption of steel increased 4.9 times; cement and aluminum 12.7 times, and plastics 25.8 times. These increases in consumption greatly exceeded the rate of population growth. However, consumption of wood during this time period only increased 1.6 times and at a rate less than population growth

We are polluting our planet by replacing wood products with other more polluting products. In their manufacturing process concrete and steel need to be heated to over 1400 and 900 degrees Celsius respectively and that takes a lot of fossil fuels and creates a lot of pollution. To make a wood board we merely slice a pre-packaged biologically based renewable material. It is like slicing sunshine. It takes some fossil fuel to accomplish, but nothing near what plastic, steel and concrete require.

In the critical 10-30 year period in front of us we need to reverse this trend away from bio-based materials and create a circular bio-based economy with wood from sustainable forest management at its core. Admittedly, wood is not a silver bullet. However, we shouldn’t hinge our future on one silver bullet, what we need are many bio-based bullets like wood to meet our climate goals. Climate scientists speak of a multitude of mitigation wedges like solar, wind, reduced consumption and more efficient buildings that collectively can add up to the savings we need to avert catastrophe. Wood is just one of those wedges, but it may prove to be one of the most powerful. A paper by Yale Professor Chad Oliver calculates that a global use of wood from sustainable forests could potentially offset up to 31% of global carbon emission. A lot of that can be accomplished by building tall urban buildings out of engineered wood instead of steel and concrete. The world’s tallest wood building, 25 stories, is now going up in Milwaukee. There are over 500 more in the construction or planning and the international building codes that allow tall wood construction are changing as we write. This is a revolution in tall building construction that began in Europe and is coming to American shores at just the right time. It is the perfect example of how to reverse a trend away from bio-based materials.



These significant climate savings all rest on the practice of sustainable forestry. That is what we were trained for and together have over 80 years’ experience in the field. So we know a thing or two and have worked with our forestry colleagues to plot a new path for forestry in the climate emergency. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change agrees:

“In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

For further information on how we can reap these climate advantages from New England forests we refer you to the position paper by the Yankee Division of the Society of American Foresters and the New England Forestry Foundations Exemplary Forestry Standards. Our vision is that the forests of New England play a major role in mitigating climate change. Part of that vision is improving the management of our forests and the second part is bringing more renewable wood products to market that can help us replace carbon polluting ones.


Authors:

Mike Ferrucci, Chairman Working Group on Forests and Climate Change, Yankee Division, New England Society of American Foresters.

Robert Perschel, Executive Director, New England Forestry Foundation

See New England Forestry Foundations' Forest to Cities Climate Challenge


Photos from Amanda B., Yankee Division, New England Society of American Foresters

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