Updated: Feb 14
Current population growth trends suggest that the global built environment will double by the year 2050, the equivalent of building an urban area the size of Paris every week for the next 40 years. Considering the sheer amount of natural resources that would be depleted to make space for such an undertaking, and the amount of carbon-intensive material like concrete or steel that would be utilized to meet that demand is guaranteed to compromise our ambitions to reverse the impacts of climate change. A potential solution is leveraging bio-based material and Climate Smart Forest Economy (CSFE) interventions to tackle the construction challenge. By sustainably harvesting forest products that can be used as substitutes for emissions-intensive materials building projects around the world have experienced how it is possible to create a climate positive impact. Nevertheless, the full climate, social, and economic implications of a shift towards timber products at scale remains unclear, thereby demanding a precautionary approach and a commitment to continually assess and monitor climate solutions that rely on interventions in land use.
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 offers an economic incentive that could protect, maintain, and manage forests, while assigning greater value to forest, 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. One such example is Easy Housing, a Breakthrough Initiative (BI) working with the Climate Smart Forest Economy Program (CSFEP) – an organization which seeks to generate and disseminate knowledge, inspire and raise the ambition of stakeholders, and support initiatives that demonstrate how the use of sustainable forest products could rapidly decarbonize construction, while creating carbon sinks in cities.
Easy Housing aims to spur the development of a CSFE in Uganda to scale timber-based housing solutions. Currently, Uganda has a housing shortage of about 2.4 million homes, and Easy Housing’s solution of prefabricated timber homes has the potential to help address that gap. While homes are built to be permanent, their method of construction allows for them to be disassembled and reassembled allowing for flexibility and extending the lifecycle of the prefabricated timber panels. While solutions such as Easy Housing’s could have a significant impact on the housing shortfall in Uganda and lessen the impacts of climate change, it must be ensured that solutions such as these can be implemented sustainably without causing any undue harm to the environment and communities.
An old Swahili proverb says, “Jahazi chombo kikuu, hakihimili kubisha, lataka tanga la kati na pepo za kuelekeza.” Translated it means, “An old sailboat does not tolerate tacking; it demands windward orientation and a soft wind to guide it.” A sailboat's fundamental purpose is to sail, but when you own an old sailboat, you must sail cautiously, acknowledging the limitation of your vessel and steering clear of turbulent winds lest you and your vessel should fail.
Building Climate Smart Forest Economies is effectively like piloting an old sailboat. We want to leverage the forest's basic functions of absorbing carbon from the atmosphere (sequestration) and storing carbon in wood (storage) to ultimately be able to avoid further fossil carbon emissions by substituting carbon-intensive materials with lifelong carbon storage products like mass timber (substitution), but we want to approach the expedition with caution to prevent adverse impact on the ecosystem, people, and climate. These preventive actions are referred to as Safeguards.
Safeguards are measures taken to prevent harm by continually assessing, monitoring, and, where possible, improving the social and environmental impacts of CSFE interventions relative to the baseline scenario. When implemented, safeguards adopt a risk-based approach and consider the CSFE intervention’s effects on three thematic categories; Ecosystem Health and Function, Society and Economy, and Climate. The goal is to ensure that CSFE interventions work to “restore, not deplete, natural resources; reduce, not increase, emissions from value chains; and protect, not exploit, interests of smallholder and forest-dwelling communities.”
To understand how and what to assess in each CSFE intervention, the CSFEP created the CSFEP Safeguards Assessment Toolkit. The toolkit aims to guide the implementers of the CSFE interventions and Independent Assessors on the key issues when assessing the intervention’s impact on the environment, society, and climate. These are based on the context and priorities set forth by the implementors, and depend on geography, project scope, and scale.
CSFE Challenge Owners (the implementer of the on-the-ground initiatives) and Independent Assessors rate each relevant issue area against the risk assessment matrix, which examines: (i) the likelihood of an impact to occur and (ii) the severity of the consequences and assigns the issue area’s impact as a co-benefit or risk with a score between low- and high-risk. Once a score is assigned, opportunities for further improvement are identified, and recommendations are co-created to refine CSFE interventions for the maximum environmental, social, and climate benefit.
CASSA, an organization creating climate-smart bamboo value chains to build safe, affordable, and sustainable DIY homes for climate refugees in Guatemala, is a good example of a CSFE initiative that has identified ways of sustainably scaling its climate-smart solution whilst underwriting its inherent risks by applying a safeguards assessment. Given that a core part of CASSA's business model involves the establishment of bamboo plantations on degraded land to ensure supply for construction projects, a key recommendation they received from the assessment that they have since implemented is to ensure that the species of bamboo selected for plantation best suits the local climate and soil conditions, and that the harvested bamboo will meet the required technical specifications and will be used for that intended purpose. Recommendations such as these help ensure that CASSA’s project will not cause harm to natural habitats or introduce invasive species to Guatemala.
How it works:
Safeguards are measures taken to prevent harm and encourage benefit by continually assessing, monitoring, and, where possible, improving the social and environmental impacts of interventions relative to the baseline scenario. They help to both constrain and enable, as appropriate, the design, function, and implementation of climate smart forest economy programs and projects. CSFEP developed a checklist to apply the most relevant elements of these tools to climate smart forest economy initiatives. The main feature of these draft tools is a checklist for both the challenge owner (the implementer of the on-the-ground initiative) and an independent assessor to complete. It follows a risk mitigation approach, identifying priority areas and aiming for continuous improvement across indicators, relative to the contextual baseline. The on-the-ground challenge owner is asked to complete a self-assessment first, allowing us to understand their assessment of risks and concerns. The independent assessor then completes the same checklist through fieldwork, showcasing what’s actually happening on the ground. Comparing these two assessments enables a shared truth about the situation that is hugely helpful for the challenge owners to identify their own blind spots, and work out opportunities for further improvement.
Safeguards are crucial in ensuring that we not only maximize the social and environmental benefits of climate-smart forest economies, but also promote the long-term sustainability of CSFE interventions by minimizing risks and mitigating negative externalities. Without social and environmental safeguards, CSFE interventions risk failure to protect the rights and interests of local communities and indigenous peoples, promote the conservation and sustainable use of forests, and promote transparency and accountability in assessing the threat to our ecosystems and climate. If CSFE interventions are to succeed in creating a more resilient and equitable climate future for all, safeguards must continually be used to assess and monitor their implementation.
Overview of the CSFEP safeguards tools:
Understanding existing safeguards tools (reports by Michigan State University):
CSFEP Checklist Toolkit (as applied to our Breakthrough Initiatives):
Document 1: Alignment Tool
Document 2: Guidance Document
Document 3: The Checklist
 UN Environment Programme, As buildings and construction sector grows, time running out to cut energy use and meet Paris climate goals, 2017  New Vision, Uganda’s housing shortage at 2.4 million decent houses, 2022  Clay, K. et al. (2022) ‘Safeguarding against Harm in a Climate-Smart Forest Economy: Definitions, Challenges, and Solutions’, Sustainability, 14(7), 4209. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/14/7/4209  Note: documents 1 – 4 can be downloaded on the ‘Resources’ page of the CSFEP website, under the ‘Safeguarding Against Harm’ section of the page