By Karen Mo
Wood is one of the oldest materials utilized by humans. For hundreds of thousands of years humans harvested wood for shelter, fibre and fuel, propelling civilizations and prosperity. Today, forest products remain one of the backbones of our modern life, and it is safe to say that the present and future generations will continue to depend on them. But unlike our ancestors, we’re facing a major dilemma – climate change.
Nowhere is this dilemma more acute than in tropical forest regions. Unsustainable logging accounts for 30–70 per cent of forest degradation across Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, changing forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Finding practical and effective ways to reduce emissions from logging while still sustaining timber yield for future generations is therefore imperative.
Can we keep our forests and log them too?
Tropical forests have countless tree species, but only a few can be sold commercially. Hence, logging in the tropics is typically focused on those few marketable species, in a process called selective logging. Emissions from selective logging come from clearing for haul roads and log yards, collateral damages around felled trees, and residuals such as branches and stumps left in the forest. Because selective logging occurs in tropical forests where logging in natural forest is permitted, their cumulative effects on the carbon cycle can be substantial.
Fortunately, there is a solution. A series of new research finds that emissions from selective logging in tropics can be halved by applying the “Reduced Impact Logging for carbon emission reduction” (RIL-C) method.
Researchers found that the average emission from RIL-C practices is 60 per cent lower than conventional logging emissions (2.3 tonne of carbon per cubic meter of timber extracted versus 5.7) in the 61 sites studied. When applied across 83 tropical forest countries, the research showed that RIL-C practices can reduce total emissions from logging by 468 million tonne of carbon per year (Tg C/year) (or 44 per cent reduction from baseline). Of these countries, 58 have made quantifiable Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) commitments to the Paris Agreement. RIL-C based forest management improvements can contribute to 4 per cent of their aggregate emission reduction targets, and 9 countries could deliver more than half of their NDC commitments through development of RIL-C alone – without incurring significant social and economic costs to the society.
The research is the first of its kind to quantify carbon emissions reduction potential by comparing RIL operations versus conventional logging methods relying mostly on field-based data. Unlike remote-sensing based studies, field studies offer rich insights into practical solutions on how emissions reduction can be achieved with minimal costs. For example, in the Congo Basin, by constructing narrower roads that are still suitable for traffic of heavy vehicles, forestry operators can reduce emission from hauling operations by as much as 58 per cent. In Madre de Dios, Peru, located in Southwestern Amazonia, reducing wood waste generates the biggest carbon bang for the buck. Better planning, training, and communications between felling crews and skidder operators, and higher utilizations of felled trees (including big branches, stems, and stumps) could reduce one third of carbon emissions from residues.
Now what? From Science to Practice
Policymakers are taking notice of the scientific evidence. The government of Suriname recently included RIL-C in its Forest Reference Emissions Level submitted to the United Nations, while the government of Gabon is considering RIL-C as a mechanism to demonstrate performance against its NDC.
Other stakeholders have responded, too. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has integrated RIL-C in its newly launched Ecosystem Service Procedure, which allows FSC certificate holders to credibly demonstrate impacts and generates potential avenue to provide benefits to forest managers.
These encouraging developments send positive signals to the market players. What is needed now is for payments to flow and for benefits to materialize. Numerous carbon finance mechanisms, including The World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), the Green Climate Fund, private sector supply chain commitments, the voluntary carbon market, and various hybrid approaches, can and should take advantage of our advanced understanding of forest management and emissions accounting.
The world today faces enormous challenges to meet the increasing demand for wood and carbon storage. With the right incentives, logging in the tropics can contribute to both objectives if it follows a scientifically-validated, outcome-based management approach. While skeptics are right to point out that logging in the tropics faces many other sustainability challenges besides carbon emission, in many cases, no logging is not a viable solution in the short term because of its contribution to the local economy. It’s time for the policy and finance communities to come together to realize the vast potential that RIL-C offers with relatively little costs, while working out more drastic measures to cut carbon emissions in the long term.
Karen Mo leads monitoring, evaluation and research for WWF Global Forest Practice, as well as managing WWF’s global research and partnerships for forest conservation.
All views are the authors own, and not those of the Center for International Forestry Research.
A version of this post was previously published on Forestsnews.cifor.org and is republished here with permission from the author.
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