Environmentalists warn that clear-cut logging permitted by the FSC and poor forestry management practices are undermining the ability slow-growing boreal forests to store carbon. Angeli Mehta reports
While the focus of efforts to end deforestation has been on tropical rainforests, home to the majority of the world’s biodiversity, ancient woodlands in the northern hemisphere are also critically important, storing the carbon equivalent of nearly twice the world’s recoverable oil reserves in their soil.
A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) drew attention to the growing deforestation threat in Canada, which has the largest intact forests in the world, home to more than 600 indigenous communities and iconic species like the boreal caribou, Canada lynx, and American marten.
Between 1996 and 2015 more than 28 million acres of boreal forest were logged, an area roughly the size of Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland combined, 90% of it by clear-cutting, NRDC says.
Of the 413m tonnes of pulp for paper produced globally, 184 million comes from virgin wood fibre
This is supported by Canadian NGO Canopy, which says of the 413m tonnes of pulp for paper produced globally, 184 million come from virgin wood fibre, and half of that from ancient and endangered forests.
According to the World Resources Institute, less than 20% of the world’s original forests remain in tracts large enough to sustain their full range of ecosystem services.
The NRDC says one of the biggest drivers in North American forests is the insatiable demand for toilet paper, paper towels and facial tissue. The sector is the fastest growing in the paper industry, and increased 3.5% annually between 2010 and 2015, 30% faster than the growth of cardboard packaging.
Americans, who make up just 4% of the world’s population, account for more than 20% of global tissue consumption, and appear to be markedly choosy about the softness of their toilet paper.
While recycled materials use half the water of virgin pulp, generate 40% less sulphur dioxide and have one third of the greenhouse gas emissions, many firms insist on sticking with virgin fibres for tissue products. This undermines the efforts being made to increase more recycled material in cardboard packaging. NRDC says.
Last October, NRDC accused US consumer goods giants Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific of “flushing forests down the toilet” by not doing enough to move away from use of virgin pulp to recycled and alternative fibres.
Efforts to preserve boreal forests are hindered by the fact that a lot of damage isn’t regarded as deforestation
Jennifer Skene, an environmental law fellow with NRDC, says conservationists’ efforts to preserve boreal forests are hindered by the fact that a lot of the damage isn’t even regarded as “deforestation”, which is defined as forest conversion for another purpose, like agriculture.
Agriculture is a key driver of deforestation in tropical countries, which lost almost 50 million acres between 2000 and 2012 due to illegal conversion, but is much less of a driver in the more sparsely populated northern hemisphere.
If a forest is clear-cut (which removes nearly all trees from an area), it’s counted as degradation, as there is an assumption that it will grow back or be replanted.
Indeed, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) official definition of a forest includes forest plantations with as little as 10% tree cover.
This is also reflected in standards of the Forestry Stewardship Council, which allows clear-cutting of up to 90% in northern forests dominated by coniferous trees, such as in Sweden in Canada.
The FSC says this is similar to nature’s way of managing them since they are frequently destroyed by forest fires or severe storms.
Monoculture plantations don’t have same biodiversity value, and regrowth is extremely slow
But conservationists say this disregards the superior carbon sequestration value of standing forests, with Canopy suggesting that original forests are 40 times more effective at sequestering CO2 per hectare than plantation forests.
“Monoculture plantations don’t have the same biodiversity value, and even where natural regrowth is allowed, regrowth is extremely slow,” Skene said. “[In boreal forests] soil carbon gets built up slowly, because it’s really acidic and cold and vegetation decomposes slowly. Logging's carbon debt is never recouped.”
Canada claims little deforestation despite the fact that logging infrastructure – the roads and landings for example – leads to vast deforestation. The Wildlands League estimates that in the province of Ontario alone, where 17% of Canada’s logging takes place, almost 22,000 hectares are lost each year, seven times the deforestation rate reported for the entire country.
The main culprit is full-tree harvesting, where an entire tree is dragged to the roadside, and desirable logs are stripped of branches. Unwanted species are left behind, and large volumes of waste accumulate, obstructing forest renewal.
The catastrophe of poor regeneration isn’t confined to the slow-growing forests of the north. Jos Barlow, professor of conservation science at Lancaster University, and his colleagues in Brazil have recently demonstrated that 60 years after clear-cutting, Amazon forests hold just 40% of the carbon stored compared with those in relatively undisturbed areas,; while biodiversity is more than halved. “It’s nothing like a forest,” Barlow observes. “Even with the best will in the world, the ‘sustainable’ management of natural forests is very inefficient and damaging.”
Even selective logging is hugely destructive, leaving tropical forests highly susceptible to drought and fire. Research using satellite imagery in the Amazon demonstrated that the probability that a selectively logged forest would subsequently be deforested was up to four times greater than for unlogged forests.
Reduced impact logging for climate change mitigation can cut emissions associated with logging by 44%
However, simple improvements in logging practices can reduce damage and avoid carbon emissions, according to The Nature Conservancy. Its scientists have demonstrated that a menu of practices it calls reduced impact logging for climate change mitigation (RIL-C) can cut emissions associated with logging by 44%. These include more careful inspection of trees to avoid wasting wood, taking more care in the direction of felling, and using smaller equipment, in turn requiring narrower logging roads.
Sophie Beckham, senior manager of natural capital stewardship at International Paper (IP), the world’s largest pulp and paper company, said RIL-C “is not intended to reduce economic return but to conduct harvesting in a way that allows for economic return for fibre.”
Her company has been supporting TNC to introduce RIL-C techniques in Indonesia and Gabon. These are forest landscapes that are “critical for the planet,” she says.
“Implementing good management there would make a greater difference,” particularly as Gabon is looking to protect forest cover for its nationally defined contribution under the Paris Aagreement and to attract carbon finance under the REDD+ programme..
The equatorial country, the second most forested on the planet, signed a 10-year agreement with Norway in September to incentivise its conservation efforts. Norway will pay Gabon $150m to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation, based on verified results, under the jurisdictional REDD+ programme, aligned with the Paris Agreement. Significantly the country will receive $10 a tonne for avoided deforestation, twice the amount mormally paid for project-level REDD+.
Satellite imagery, which is increasingly employed to reveal the diminishing forest landscape and spot illegal logging, will be used to verify conservation results in Norway’s deal with Gabon.
Not enough forest is certified to meet the demands of the paper and pulp industry
IP has no sourcing in Gabon, but is considering how to replicate the project in other priority locations, including the US.
Another IP project with WWF aims to set science-based targets for forests. This involves developing guidance for companies and governments on how to keep forests above the ecological tipping point where they no longer thrive. As part of this complex project WWF is also developing targets that combine objectives for both zero conversion of forest and degradation-neutrality.
“While this wouldn’t identify what specific regional forests need, it would limit continued impacts from companies and other actors, and would incentivise regeneration/restoration in places that have experienced significant human impact,” says WWF senior programme officer Akiva Fishman.
Meanwhile, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has just launched an online database showing FSC-certified forests, although as yet some areas like the US are entirely missing.
This year a new FSC standard comes into force in Canada’s boreal forests that should provide better protections for the caribou population. Skene is “cautiously optimistic” but wants to wait to see if its implementation will be as robust as the standard suggests on paper.
Forest certifications are meant to provide assurance that timber and fibre is sourced sustainably, but not enough forest is certified to meet the demands of the paper and pulp industry.
International Paper is working on getting more landowners to certify. Ironically, says Beckham, “our challenge is not in Poland, where all forests [it sources from] are certified – or in Brazil where plantations are certified, but more in the US. We’ve put tremendous effort into reaching out to smaller landowners. Many [of them] say ‘we’re already doing good management, so what’s the incentive?’”
Bad actors are compromising all the good things that are being done in other parts of the industry
The work on science-based targets will give the company a starting point.
But there are still the bad actors, she adds, whose activities “in very sensitive and threatened forests are compromising all the good things that are being done in other parts of the industry.”
Last year, IP rolled out a GIS (geographic information system) mapping tool across its US mills in what Beckham describes as “a tremendous learning process.”.
All fibre-buyers have the app, ForestViewTM, which uses publicly available data and user input to identify tracts of land with conservation value. When buying a tract of timber, the fibre buyer uses the app to cross-reference the source location with the conservation values associated with species or landscape attributes, with a one-kilometre resolution.
If the app flags an issue, “procurement staff will have boots on the ground,” says Beckham. “That contact provides an opportunity to recommend an increased buffer on a stream, or a different management or harvest approach because of the presence of a certain species.”
The plan is to roll it out globally, for non-certified sources. “But we could cross-walk it with land that is certified.”
In Romania, some reports suggest over seven acres are lost every hour
Surveillance activities are also being stepped up in Europe, where, despite national laws and EU habitat directives, the forests of the Carpathian mountains are being logged at an alarming rate, environmentalists say.
In Romania, home to much of Europe’s remaining old growth forest, a habitat for wolves, bears and lynx, some reports suggest over seven acres are lost every hour, while a satellite-mapping study estimated an 11% loss of forest cover in the central Carpathians between 2000 and 2017.
One of the drivers seems to have been Europe’s push for burning biomass for energy (see Europe under pressure to stop burning biomass for renewable energy).
Vienna-headquartered HS Timber (formerly Holzindustrie Schweighofer), a wood-processing company, has invested in technology to trace its deliveries of Romanian timber.
The company was itself accused by the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2015 of accepting illegally logged wood. That led to FSC’s decision to disassociate itself from the group in 2017, and to set a series of conditions to be met before the company’s status would be revisited.
Michael Proschek-Hauptmann, HS Timber’s chief compliance and sustainability officer, insists the allegations have never been proven.
If it cannot be verified, then we cannot take this material into production or we the suspend the supplier
The company, he says, is working hard to demonstrate it’s now going beyond the letter of the law: it avoids taking timber even from permissible zones around the country’s national park forests, themselves ostensibly off-limits to loggers.
Its pioneering tracing system, Timflow, uses pictures, GPS referencing, and a unique timestamp linked to Romania’s new state-run wood accounting system to provide monitoring of the trucks and transport route from loading to the sawmill.
The aim is to determine that “the material in the truck conforms with what we are purchasing,” says Proschek-Hauptmann.
Timflow doesn’t yet cover the inputs to third-party log yards, where materials are collected and delivered, but Proschek-Hauptmann argues that there is a stringent auditing system there.
It has also been piloting a mobile system to enable identification of each log, as well as researching technologies to give suppliers a version of Timflow for their own yards. “That helps them also. It increases the security of their products and gives them an opportunity to show they are transparent,” he adds.
In 2018, 25,000 deliveries were registered in Timflow. And from this 10% were flagged for further checks. “If it cannot be verified, then we cannot take this material into production or we suspend the supplier.” The company uses the auditing system regardless of whether the wood is certified or not.
Any illegal harvest starts in the forest. This is where you need to focus
Timflow itself isn’t expensive, Proschek-Hauptmann remarks. “It’s the people and expertise behind it that is expensive.” A dedicated team of 10 forestry management specialists spend their time on supply chain control, going into forests and log yards.
Like other forest product companies, HS Timber is also investigating blockchain as a means to increase supply chain transparency.
But, insists Proschek-Hauptmann, preventing illegal logging comes back to government control: “Any illegal harvest starts in the forest. This is where you need to focus and where you need to put the pressure on.”
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of our in-depth briefing on deforestation risk in timber product supply chains, see also: