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Putting forests at the heart of a new, greener economy

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18 June 2012
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The world's forests have a major role to play in the transition to a new, greener economy, a theme being discussed at the Rio+20 Conference.  But to spark that shift, governments must enact programs and policies aimed at both unlocking the potential of forests and ensuring that they are sustainably managed, FAO said today.

In a new report, The State of the World's Forests 2012 (SOFO 2012), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization makes the case that better and more sustainable use of forestry resources can make a significant contribution to meeting many of the core challenges being discussed in Rio, including reducing poverty and hunger, minimizing the impacts of climate change, and creating alternative and more sustainable sources of bio-products and bio-energy for human use.

The report will be presented today during an event at the Rio+20 Conference organized by FAO and its partners, Brazilian Pulp and Paper Association (Bracelpa) and the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA).

"Forests and trees on farms are a direct source of food, energy, and cash income for more than a billion of the world's poorest people," said FAO Assistant Director-General for Forestry Eduardo Rojas-Briales. "At the same time, forests trap carbon and mitigate climate change, maintain water and soil health, and prevent desertification. The sustainable management of forests offers multiple benefits -- with the right programs and policies, the sector can lead the way towards more sustainable, greener economies."

"Brazil has successful examples of forest plantation management, and its good practices can be disseminated to other developing countries in order to promote the green economy and strengthen the synergies between sustainable development and climate change mitigation. The Rio+20 discussions must be the starting point to strengthen the balance of the triple bottom line. Brazil's pulp and paper industry is prepared to promote innovation in biotechnology and sequestration of forest carbon that can support a sustainable expansion of triple bottom line activities. This means social inclusion and protection of the environment", added Elizabeth de Carvalhaes, Bracelpa's executive president.

"The global forest products industry is at the forefront of forest conservation efforts," said Donna Harman, President of ICFPA. "Through sustainable forest management practices, our industry not only produces a sustained annual yield of timber, but also ensures its abundance for future generations. The global forest products industry also contributes to livelihoods and human well-being by employing millions of people around the world and by producing products that provide shelter and increase literacy. The emerging bio-economy can only increase the important role of this industry."

Supporting livelihoods

Investments in wood-based enterprises can generate jobs, create assets and help revitalize the lives of millions of people in rural areas, according to FAO's new report.

Some 350 million of the world's poorest people, including 60 million indigenous people, depend on forests for their daily subsistence and long-term survival, it notes. "On-farm forestry," also known as agroforestry, is in some cases contributing up to 40 percent of farm income via harvesting of wood, fruits, oils and medicines.

Despite sometimes having a poor reputation due to concerns over deforestation, wood products -- if sourced from well-run forestry operations -- can store carbon and are easily recycled. Forest-based industries around the world are innovating competitive new products and processes to substitute non-renewable materials, and by doing so are opening pathways towards low-carbon bio-economies. "The promotion of a sustainable forest-based industry offers a way to improve rural economies while meeting sustainability goals," says SOFO 2012.

But while the report indicates that the value of forest products exports more than doubled between 2002 to 2010 in certain areas, it also says that more attention needs to be paid to promoting the creation of small and medium scale forest-based enterprises that benefit local communities.

Renewable energy

FAO's report also argues that sustainable forestry offers a renewable, alternative source of energy.

Burning wood may be the oldest method by which humans acquire energy, but it is anything but obsolete," said Rojas-Briales. Today, wood energy is still the dominant source of energy for over one third of the world's population - in particular for the poor, he noted. "And as the search for renewable energy sources intensifies, we must not overlook the considerable opportunities for forest biomass-based energy to emerge as a cleaner and greener alternative," he said.

According to SOFO 2012 deriving energy from wood, can offer a climate-neutral and socially equitable solution, provided wood is harvested from sustainably managed forests, burned using appropriate technologies, and undertaken in combination with reforestation and sustainable forest management programs.

Says the report: "Increasing the use of renewable energy, including wood-based fuels, relative to fossil fuels may be one of the most important components of a global transition to a low carbon economies. Sustainable energy production from wood can create local employment and can be used to redirect expenditures from imported fossil fuels to investments in domestic sources of energy, with employment and income benefits."

However, FAO also cautions that doing so will require careful attention to existing patterns of wood energy dependence, the use of sustainable forest management practices in the harvesting and planting of trees, and the adoption of efficient technologies for converting biomass into heat and cogeneration (heat/electricity).

Carbon capture to mitigate climate change

By both reducing deforestation and restoring lost forests on a large scale, significant amounts of carbon can be removed from the atmosphere, reducing the severity and impacts of climate change. At the same time, such projects would also support rural livelihoods and provide renewable raw materials for sustainable building using more wood and bamboo as well as as bio-energy, indicates SOFO 2012. Nearly 2 billion hectares of land area have been identified through the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration as being suitable for restoration.

And afforestation provides the additional benefit of helping combat desertification and soil degradation.

Supporting policies

Putting forests at the heart of a new, green economy will require, first and foremost, policies and programmes that give entrepreneurs incentives to pursue the sustainable utilization of forest resources. This includes "the removal of perverse incentives that result in deforestation and degradation and conversion of forests to other uses as well as those promoting the use of non renewable raw materials like steel, concrete, plastics or fossil energies that compete with wood and bamboo," SOFO 2012 says.

Creating appropriate revenue streams for forest ecosystem services like carbon sequestration can also encourage forest landholders and managers to protect and restore forests.  Open and decentralized systems of management including industrial transformation and energy supply can help promote efficiency and transparency and offer a diversified range of opportunities for local entrepreneurs.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut