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Harvesting trees good: Building a climate smart forest economy in East Africa

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

When we speak of conserving the environment, for most of us, tree planting comes top of mind. From an early age, we are taught that planting trees is good for the environment. Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and produce the oxygen we breathe, they give fish and wildlife habitats, are aesthetically pleasing, and offer recreational opportunities. So, harvesting trees is bad—right? Well, it is not that simple.

Scientific studies[1] suggest that sustainably managing forests and felling trees to produce lifelong wood products can create a Climate Smart Forest Economy and offer far more environmental and social economic benefits from a tree’s lifecycle.

So, what is a Climate Smart Forest Economy?

A Climate Smart Forest Economy (CSFE) refers to using forest products to provide net climate benefits while meeting social and ecological safeguards[2]. But a CSFE is not all numbers and carbon accounting. It is a holistic sustainability circle that starts with sustainably managing forests – harvesting trees at a rate that allows the forests to renew themselves, while also meeting non-timber values such as being mindful of protected areas, fish and wildlife habitats, water sources, and scenic vistas.

Beyond the environmental concerns, consider the social and economic impacts of forest activities on the livelihoods and well-being of indigenous communities. The circle is complete when measures to prevent harm and encourage benefit are taken, continually assessing, monitoring, and, where possible, improving an intervention’s social and environmental impact when compared to the status quo.

In a world where the global human populations are rising at alarming rates, and far more people are moving into cities, posing extreme pressure on natural resources, we cannot opt for a hands-off forest approach. The construction industry, which is directly affected by the rising urban populations, is under pressure to reduce its environmental impact and shift towards more sustainable construction methods.

The net climate benefits of timber products from sustainable forests are calculated by considering products’ sequestration, storage, and substitution benefits. That is, how much greenhouse gas emissions are sequestered in the trees, how much is stored in the timber products, and the amount of carbon substituted from using a climate-friendly product like wood, as opposed to a carbon-intensive product like plastic, concrete, or steel. From the seven-story T3 tower in Minneapolis, United States[3], to the eighteen-story Mjøstårnet tower in Brumunddal, Norway,[4] countries in the Global North have been leading the resurgence of wood construction, particularly the use of mass timber as a climate smart building material.[5]

What is mass timber?

Mass timber, also called structural or massive timber, is an engineered wood product category composed of multiple solid wood panels joined together to supply exceptional strength and stability. Mass timber comes in different shapes, sizes and functions, with the most popular kind being Cross Laminated Timber (CLT).

This lighter, low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel has been embraced by architects and construction companies worldwide as a positive climate-change response material for sustainability-focused design and construction.

Yet, in the Global South, where natural forest resources abound, there has been a slightly less zealous shift towards mass timber construction. However, growing numbers of public and private players in the Global South are exploring ways to influence and incentivize timber value chains to build a climate-smart construction industry in the region. With the urban population in East Africa expected to increase by approximately 65% by 2050[6], a focus on making the construction sector and its sourcing practices more sustainable could rapidly decarbonize the region’s future built environment and create carbon sinks in cities.

In East Africa, several organizations including the likes of BuildX Studio and Easy Housing are already pioneering the move towards climate-conscious engineered timber construction industry to address the housing gap in the region. Nairobi-based architecture, engineering and construction firm, BuildX Studio, is pioneering a multi-story mass timber building in Nairobi while assessing regional supply opportunities, and Easy Housing is building comfortable, safe, and affordable prefabricated timber homes. In Tanzania, CPS Zanzibar Limited, a leading provider of construction solutions in the country, is leading the development of residential estate Fumba Town in Zanzibar – in which most homes are envisioned to be timber frame homes[7]. In addition to this, CPS is leading the development of the 28-storey Burj Zanzibar, which, once realized, will be the highest hybrid timber building in the world[8].

A recent study suggests that housing 90% of the world’s growing urban population in mid-rise wooden buildings could prevent 106 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2100[9]. According to Arup’s East Africa Sustainable Timber Construction Supply/Demand Study, Kenya’s market share for green buildings could rise up to 70% by 2040, with mass timber and mass timber hybrid buildings, in particular, constituting up to 42% of all new residential and commercial developments[10]. In this scenario, the country could save up to 2.97M tCO2e of embodied carbon within the mid-rise residential buildings landscape by 2040.[11]

BuildX and Easy Housing are setting the foundation to unlock the full climate potential of forests and forest products and their salient ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change in East Africa. The hope is that learnings and knowledge generated through these pioneer companies and their partners’ work in the region will inspire and raise the ambition of stakeholders in the construction industry to take part in climate-smart forestry practices. Massive opportunities are yet to be leveraged across the forest value chain and construction is only scratching the surface.

Wood is beautiful, strong, and renewable; a natural, low-carbon, and energy-efficient material that is highly versatile. Growing and using wood, especially in construction, is one of our most powerful tools in tackling the climate crisis. So, while preserving our natural forests, we can also scale up the establishment of sustainable plantation forests to increase global forest cover, carbon storage and biobased construction simultaneously.

[1] ARUP, East Africa Sustainable Timber Construction Supply/Demand Study, 2022 [2] See more about safeguards here [3] Architect Magazine, T3 Becomes the First Modern Tall Wood Building in the U.S., 2016, Accessed: 2022 [4] Arch Daily, Mjøstårnet the Tower of Lake Mjøsa / Voll Arkitekter, 2020, Accessed: 2022 [5] Climate Smart Forest Economy Program, Pathways for Sector Development in East Africa, 2022 [6] See note 1 [7] Fumba Town, Wood Magic in Zanzibar, 2020 [8] Accesswire, CPS Zanzibar Limited: World’s Tallest Timber Apartment Tower to be Built in Zanzibar, 2022 [9] The Guardian, Timber cities ‘could cut 100bn tons of CO2 emissions by 2100’, 2022 [10] Note: Provided the country can create the necessary enabling environment and the regional supply chain is strengthened [11] See note 1


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