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Imagining a Climate Smart Forest Economy

As the global population increases, particularly in cities, the pressure on the world’s resources is accelerating exponentially. In fact, each week another 1.5 million people move to urban areas. Because all of them will require places to live and work, it is projected we will need the equivalent of another New York City every 34 days for the next 40 years.[1] The assumption that economic and population growth inevitably lead to environmental and social degradation has certainly been widely accepted. But what if we were to turn that narrative around? What if (counter intuitive as it may seem), instead of contributing to the degradation and loss of forests and biodiversity, the surging demand for new and retrofitted buildings accelerated natural climate solutions, including tree planting and reforestation, and led to an increase in the world’s forest cover? What if buildings, towns, and even sprawling cities drove demand for timber sourced from sustainably managed forests that absorb and store carbon, help to stabilize and improve soils, and provide clean water and jobs for rural communities? What if these new buildings could replace carbon-intensive concrete and steel skyscrapers, enabling those buildings — and entire cities — to store[2] carbon rather than emit greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere?


Buildings as Global Carbon Sinks

There is a future in which forests can support cities and, in return, cities can support forests: a future of leafy city streets, vibrant forest communities, and beautifully designed buildings made from wood — which are designed to be lighter, stronger, and even fire and earthquake resistant. Realizing this vision is not only theoretically plausible but could also be one of the most immediately accessible ways of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Within this decade, we have the ability to create a Climate-Smart Forest Future,[3] one where forests, forest products, and buildings help to avert a full-scale climate emergency — a climate-smart future in which, as Sir David Attenborough so inspiringly put it, we “have more forests than any of us have ever known.” Cities remain our best bet for realizing human potential; and inevitably, that comes with a host of adjoining responsibilities around environmental stewardship. The time to reimagine our cities for the next century and beyond is here. Along with its climate benefits, a Climate-Smart Forest Economy could drive significant investment in sustainable forestry, job creation, and rural community development. With a carefully conceived, systems-driven strategy — one grounded in rigorous science, and one designed to shape policy and drive investment and market demand for the development and testing of alternative materials and pilot projects — this climate solution could well be in plain sight. Imagine that a new neighbourhood was built using today’s typical construction methods and materials (namely concrete and steel) and that this neighbourhood was replicated across the world, adding an urban area the size of Paris every week. Now, imagine instead a new neighbourhood built out of wood sourced from a local forest that upholds the highest environmental and social standards — and its carbon storage capacity remains unimpaired after careful harvesting. Imagine that the architect, construction firm, and local authority involved with the project’s development deployed funds towards reforestation and agroforestry projects locally and around the world. Imagine that the neighbourhood underwent significant greening as part of the development commitments, and that the timber used in the building replaced what was originally specified as steel or concrete. Imagine that the buildings were specified to remain standing for more than 100 years — storing carbon for over a lifetime — and designed to eventually be de-constructed so that their component parts (beams and frames) could be used in other buildings or products.


Now, isn’t that a vision worth chasing?


By combining climate functions, we are therefore presented with a tantalizing opportunity to maximize the climate benefits of forests via a systemic approach to unlock the full climate potential of both forests and forest products. The need for a systemic approach — a redesign of our system — builds towards what might be termed a “Climate-Smart Forest Economy.”


A Climate-Smart Forest Economy refers to the usage of forest products in circumstances where this provides net climate benefits while meeting social and ecological safeguards. Building a Climate-Smart Forest Economy could protect, maintain, and manage forests, while assigning greater value to forests, creating further incentives for restoration and reforestation. It offers an opportunity to decarbonize sectors that interface with forests through their value chains, such as construction. In addition to positive climate outcomes, this can result in substantial social and economic benefits.


[1] “Global Status Report 2017 - World Green Building Council.” Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.worldgbc.org/sites/default/files/UNEP%20188_GABC_en%20%28web%29.pdf [2] Churkina, G., Organschi, A., Reyer, C.P.O. et al. Buildings as a global carbon sink. Nat Sustain 3, 269–276 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0462-4 [3] A review of greenhouse gas mitigation in Europe’s forests and forest products: The Forest Economy and Climate Change – J Lawrence & G Lomax (TNC)

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