Planted forests have a role in combatting illegal logging and climate change
How do we find the balance between conserving restoring the world’s forests for social and environmental reasons, while also increasing sustainable production of forest products for a range of uses? How can we do this while also adapting to climate change and increasing the resilience of our landscapes? And what role can planted forests play?
These are the questions the WWF’s New Generation Plantations (NGP) platform will be conversing about, while is celebrating its 10th anniversary in London and Edinburgh on June 21-25, in its annual Encounter, co-hosted by WWF and the Forestry Commission in the UK.
The NGP platform aims to share and promote the highest standards of plantation management around the world. It is based on the premise that well-managed planted forests in the right places can help conserve biodiversity and meet human needs, while contributing to sustainable economic growth and local livelihoods.
While the Encounter is celebrating the achievements of the past 10 years, the focus is on the future –participants from all over the world, representing environmental groups, local communities, forest companies and government bodies, will be exploring a number of issues connected to forests, plantations and climate change.
The coming decades will bring profound changes and challenges for forests and plantations. Climate change will have significant impacts on our forests, their productivity and the biodiversity they support. Global demand for forest products is set to triple by 2050, potentially increasing the risk of illegal and unsustainable logging. Forests continue to be lost and degraded at an alarming rate, but at the same time restoration is planned on an unprecedented scale: the Bonn Challenge, for example, aims to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.
This daily blog is written by Barney Jeffries, a participant to the Encounter. Please follow us #NGP2017
The 2017 annual encounter is a special one for NGP. This year, we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary. It’s a good time to look back on how the platform has developed, and to look ahead to the challenges of the decades to come.
Chatham House, in the heart of London’s West End, is a suitably symbolic venue. Since 1920, it’s hosted debate and discussion on the most significant developments in international affairs. To encourage openness and sharing of information, the famous Chatham House Rule allows participants to use the information received, but not to reveal the identity or affiliation of the speaker or any other participant.
There’s no need to invoke the rule in today’s meeting. NGP has cultivated a strong spirit of openness and sharing over the years: it’s a safe space where everyone feels free to express their views.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. At the time NGP was formed, there was fierce opposition to plantations within the NGO community, including within WWF, while companies were wary of sharing too much with their competitors.
Several of the people who attended the very first NGP events have been regular participants ever since, and a number of them reflect on their experience during a panel discussion this afternoon. As Antti Marjokorpi from Stora Enso says: “It was a brave and visionary move from WWF to engage with the plantation sector.”
Hosting and attending NGP study tours has helped companies raise their game, he says: “It’s a motivation to be able to show others what they are doing, to validate their work and to learn from others.”
“We added ‘what if…?’ to our vocabulary,” says Paula Guimarães from The Navigator Company. “NGP opened up our way of looking at things. We see that problems are similar all over the world. We talk to each other, we inspire each other, we exchange experiences and we bring back home a whole lot of new knowledge.”
While these ‘softer’ outcomes have been a crucial part of the NGP process, the last decade has brought real progress on the ground too. Some of these results are reflected in our 10th anniversary publication, Plantations for people, planet and prosperity, which receives its official launch today.
Peter Freer-Smith, from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations’ task force on planted forests which reviewed and contributed to the publication, points to the significant growth in forest certification during this period. NGP participants manage 11 million hectares, of which 45% is dedicated to plantations, almost entirely FSC certified. The rest is mostly made up of conserved and restored natural forests and other ecosystems, along with grazing land and small-scale farming.
Of course, huge challenges remain, several of which are highlighted during today’s discussions. How to reach and support smallholders, who are crucial to future plantation development in many regions. How to mobilize the money needed to finance plantations and forest restoration on the scale required to meet the timber needs of a growing population, and to meet countries’ climate pledges. How to communicate the good we do to a public that remains sceptical.
We look forward to much more discussion on these and other subjects as we return to the place where the first NGP meeting took place: Edinburgh. See you there.
Day 1 - Happy Anniversary!
Today we return to Edinburgh, the venue for the first NGP meeting back in 2007.
The UK may seem an unlikely location to host a global forestry platform. With trees covering just 12% of the land area (compared to a European average of 45%), it’s hardly a major forest country.
But, as Sir Harry Studholme, Chair of the Forestry Commission, points out, “We’re experts in deforestation.” Once upon a time the island of Great Britain was covered in trees – but we’ve been progressively chopping them down over several millennia. Britain has had to import timber for hundreds of years, and by the time of the First World War, just 4% forest cover remained.
The strategic imperative of increasing the country’s timber reserves led to the formation in 1919 of the Forestry Commission, a British government agency and one of NGP’s founding participants. Over the last century, the Commission has been remarkably successful in increasing Britain’s forest area – especially in Scotland, which dominates the UK timber industry. Over time, the non-timber benefits of these planted forests – including recreation and biodiversity, and latterly carbon sequestration – have become an increasingly important objective.
But this reforestation effort hasn’t been without its problems. The British public loves forests – but they don’t necessarily love plantations. In Scotland especially, blanket planting of exotic Sitka spruce monocultures – often in unsuitable locations, and subsidized by questionable tax breaks – damaged the forest industry’s reputation and social licence.
In response, over the last three decades planting has dropped sharply and shifted away from productive conifer forests to broad-leaved native species. While these have brought environmental, social and climate benefits, the UK remains the world’s third largest importer of timber after China and Japan – and there’s a danger that the thriving forest products industry will face a growing shortage in coming decades if productive forests aren’t replaced.
Now Scotland is once again committing to major productive tree planting, with the aim of planting 15,000 hectares a year by 2020. And there’s a commitment to learning the lessons of the past. Today’s new generation of plantations are a very different proposition, comprising a diversity of species and ages, with conservation areas, restored riparian vegetation and recreational opportunities as well as timber production. There’s also increased focus on sharing the benefits with communities and providing high-quality rural employment.
Even so, social challenges remain. While bare uplands overgrazed by sheep may not be natural or provide much ecological benefit, that’s the landscape and lifestyle that local people are used to. Many people remain suspicious of forestry, and change can’t just be imposed without their consent.
In the end, while the context may be very different, the issues surrounding plantations in Scotland aren’t so far removed from those in Chile, Laos or Uganda. And that’s why we’re all here.
Day 2 - Different context, same issues
One of the themes of this Encounter is the role of planted forests in combating climate change. The link between trees and carbon isn’t a complicated one. Deforestation increases carbon emissions. Planting trees, using more wood products and protecting natural forests takes carbon out of the atmosphere. That’s one reason why we need plantations (in the right places) more than ever.
This morning’s speakers present some different perspectives on how this can happen. Elizabeth de Carvalhaes, from the Brazilian forestry association IBA and representing the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations, talks of the need “to find innovative ways to turn carbon into renewable products, and to use wood fibre to substitute for goods traditionally made from fossil fuels”.
IBA has produced a great infographic showing the hundreds of products that can be made from trees. hese include both products already on the market (did you know the LCD screen on your smartphone is derived from cellulose?) and those in the research and development phase – Elizabeth gives the example of research into wood-based carbon fibres as a lighter, stronger and lower-carbon substitute for aluminium in aeroplane wings.
While these innovative uses of wood will help to build market demand, there’s also a need to find mechanisms that reward growers for the non-financial benefits that trees provide – carbon sequestration in particular. The China Green Carbon Foundation (CGCF) – a non-profit organization attached to the Chinese State Forestry Administration – has been very successful in doing this.
Founded in 2010, by the end of 2016 CGCF had raised US$120 million in donations from private companies, individuals, organizations and events seeking to offset their carbon emissions through growing trees. This has helped support afforestation and improved forest management projects covering 80,000 hectares across China, with verified carbon savings.
As Dr Wu Shiurong from the Chinese Academy of Forestry explains, CGCF has grown up with NGP, and NGP principles have been embedded in its work from the beginning. Now this is being taken into new areas as CGCF begins to support projects in other countries, including through the One Belt One Road initiative (discussed on our recent study tour to China’s Gansu province).
CGCF has also just begun collaborating with the government of Acre in Brazil, a connection established on an NGP study tour to the Amazonian state last year. As Alberto Tavares from the Acre Environmental Services Development Company tells us, Acre is a world leader in payments for environmental services. It has the most advanced state-wide (or “jurisdictional”, to use the current jargon) REDD+ system, with donors including the German development bank KfW and the state of California providing finance for reducing emissions from deforestation and increasing carbon stocks.
This has helped Acre to decouple development from deforestation – GDP and indicators like education levels have increased over the last decade, while deforestation has fallen dramatically. At the same time, efforts to add economic value to the rainforest areas have been complemented by plantations of rubber, acai palm and Brazil nut trees in already deforested areas.
We need more stories like this. And, as the world continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere, we need them urgently.
The Paris Climate Agreement recognized the role of forests in combating climate change, and many countries have included forests, and land use more generally, in their commitments. At the same time, there have been eye-catching regional pledges to restore degraded and deforested lands on a huge scale.
Major programmes include AFR100, a pan-African initiative to restore 100 million hectares by 2030, and Initiative 20x20 to bring 20 million hectares in Latin America in restoration by 2020. Some US$3 billion of international funding has been committed to support these efforts.
So how can big plantation companies like those in NGP help meet these commitments and unlock this funding? That’s the question posed by Rod Taylor, forest director with the World Resources Institute.
He points to a number of interesting examples. In Kenya, timber companies are supporting small-scale plantations distributed across farmland: the companies supply the seeds and harvest the timber, while the farmers benefit from the shade and soil stability that trees provide. In Paraguay, leguminous pongomia trees are revitalizing land while providing a productive oil seed crop. In Brazil, trials are going on into carrying out reforestation with native species that can in future provide an economic return.
Companies can support these and other efforts with their technical expertise – many NGP participants have considerable experience in reforestation, as well as in silviculture techniques generally. Could they also play a role through investing in smaller companies involved in innovative restoration activities that could bring future business opportunities? And are there opportunities for public-private finance, recognizing that forest restoration can provide public and private benefits?
We see an illustration of this in our first field trip (it’s great to get out into the forest in the hills of Perthshire after four days sitting inside conference rooms). Craigvinean, at site run by the Forestry Commission, is an example of what forest restoration can look like.
The Dukes of Athol began reforesting their estate more than 200 years ago. This area was planted around 70 years ago, largely with non-native Sitka and Norwegian spruce, as well as larch and Scots pine. These trees have grown well, and provide a good yield of commercial timber for local saw mills.
But the forest today provides far more benefits than timber alone. It attracts around 350,000 visitors a year who come to walk in the woods and brave the hair-raising mountain bike trails – while millions more admire the scenery on the main road from Edinburgh to the Scottish highlands. Protected red squirrels – which have made themselves at home in the spruce – and other wildlife are thriving. Sensitive management from the Forestry Commission has enabled natural regeneration, including of a range of native broad-leaved trees, after the conifers have been harvested.
What the restoration promised under the Paris Agreement will look like remains to be seen. But if it bears some resemblance to this, then it will be a hugely positive thing.
Day 4 - Restoration past and future
A famous Chinese proverb says: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
As mentioned yesterday, the Dukes of Atholl began planting trees two centuries ago (the 4th Duke, John “the Planter”, apparently fired larch cones onto the steep hillsides out of a cannon – a method of reforestation that hasn’t, as far as I’m aware, been widely adopted). The grounds of Blair Castle, their family seat, provide the venue for our final reflection session – and it’s a joy to walk among the towering conifers planted in the 19th century, which are now some of the tallest trees in Britain.
At 10 years old, NGP has already passed the age at which a eucalyptus plantation in the tropics would be ready to harvest. In a temperate zone, it would be a well-established forest by now. There’s a strong feeling in the group that, having put in the hard work over the years, now it’s time to deliver.
NGP participants have developed models that work. While the contexts and components vary, we’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to combine commercially viable plantations with conservation and restoration at a landscape level. And that this can provide multiple benefits to society: not just by supplying vital renewable raw materials, but by absorbing carbon, protecting biodiversity, stabilizing soils, creating rural livelihoods and recreational opportunities, and more.
Of course, big challenges remain, and a number of key issues crop up again and again. How to bring other land users into the picture – because we can make the biggest difference when we work with others at a landscape scale. How to reach out to smallholders – who have the potential collectively to play a massive role in restoring landscapes, growing timber and increasing food security, but need support to do so. How to get investment where it’s needed – like plantations in developing countries which conventional investors may see as too risky, or schemes that promise major environmental and social returns but only modest financial ones.
Crucial to all this is communicating what NGP is about to a much wider circle – not just within the forestry sector, but to other industries, NGOs, government, investors, civil society and the general public.
And this needs to happen now. Because the best time to plant a tree is today.
Day 5 - Planting for the future