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News Story
9 March 2021

Trees can be the heroes or the victims of the climate crisis. We decide.

Photo: Todd Kay / Pixabay

Forests and trees can mitigate climate change and help us build resilient and healthy societies. Many large-scale tree-planting initiatives have emerged in the last few years as a response to the growing demand, but often these initiatives fail to deliver people’s needs and end up threatening the people’s livelihoods and the wellbeing of our planet.

Historically and today, our society has benefitted greatly from trees as they helped us built our wealth by providing shelter, wood, energy, paper and work opportunities, as well as habitats for our world’s flora and fauna. But, recently we have seen an increase in forest fires in New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, in California, Siberia and the Brazilian parts of the Amazon. At the same time, large parts of rainforests, especially the Amazon, are being cleared for the benefit of agricultural expansion, driven to a large extent by consumption in the Global North.

How can we ensure that healthy forested landscapes continue providing food, timber and other forest resources while nourishing biodiversity and our connection with nature?

In the event Trees in a disturbed climate – heroes or victims? broadcasted live on October 2, 2020 at the Gothenburg Science Festival, experts in forestry, architecture and ecosystems twisted and turned over the many roles of trees and forests and elaborated on how we can think and prioritize when balancing different use options, both locally and globally. You can watch the recording of the event in Swedish below.

Integrating food and timber production is the way forward

“The benefits and uses of trees within a landscape are many,” said Anna Tengberg, program manager for Swedish Water House at the Swedish International Water Institute (SIWI). Tengberg has extensive knowledge on how trees can make our landscapes more resilient to change by promoting water access and restoring degraded soils.

According to Tengberg, the way forward is to allow for mosaic landscapes that integrate food and timber production with breathing spaces for wild nature. In that way, we can harvest resources to make a decent living while nature can provide a resilient and giving landscape. But the land is a precious resource and Tengberg highlighted that if we don’t increase the value of the regulating ecosystem services, we might lose them for the benefit of production.

”If we increase the costs of trees and forests services, such as water regulation, and collaborate more efficiently between authorities and governments along with a landscape that combines forestry with agriculture, then trees can remain heroes. Because it’s not only about how trees can save us from the climate crisis, they can also help us adapt the landscape to be more resilient to future and ongoing climatic changes,” said Tengberg.

Swedish potential for carbon reduction – building more with wood

Sweden is one of the world-leading exporters of timber, and the reason why Swedish architecture and design largely rely on timber is no coincidence. In fact, Sweden has been utilizing forests as a source for construction material for centuries.

When timber is used for housing or furniture, the carbon dioxide that the trees have absorbed during their growth can be stored as carbon in the biomass for decades or even centuries, which is a much-needed contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Materials derived from trees are therefore more sustainable and climate-friendly in the long run compared to concrete or steel that emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide during production.

Jonas Edblad, Architect at Wingårdhs Architecture firm, says that almost all of their carbon footprint (97 %) is locked into the construction projects they take on. By increasing the use of timber in construction, the firms’ carbon footprint can be reduced by up to 50 percent. “We see an increased demand for timber from our construction workers, but our construction system has limited expansion capacity. Wooden construction parts are not as easy to find as the same in steel or concrete. If we can show that it is possible to build with good quality in wood, we hope that the construction system will follow and gear towards timber and a more climate-smart construction system,” said Edblad.

Using nature as building blocks for our houses and to help reduce our fossil fuel dependency sounds like a win-win solution, but considering the fact that we also need to leave trees and forests intact conceal potential conflicts between uses.

Panelists during the event trees in a disturbed climate – heroes or victims? The signs of trees as heroes or victims are developed by Hugo Gustafsson, communications officer at Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable development. From left to right: Anna Tengberg (SIWI), Madelene Ostwald (Chalmers) and Jonas Edblad (Wingårdhs Architects).

Photo: Hugo Gustafsson (GMV).

Conflicting uses of trees – a global outlook

Since its birth in 2008, the United Nations program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) has implemented several projects to reduce deforestation and keep forests and trees intact for carbon storage. The foundation of the projects is to compensate land-owners economically for letting their trees and forests act as carbon sinks.

But storing carbon, whether it is in the form of standing biomass or in the form of housing or furniture, is rarely a motive for land-owners anywhere. Madelene Ostwald, Docent at the Division of Environmental Systems Analysis, Chalmers University of Technology, has worked with trees in the Global South. She said that landowners with trees on their fields generally want to use the trees for other purposes, such as energy for the household, building-materials, feed for livestock, or to provide fruits for children when harvests fail.

During her work with research, Madeleine Ostwald has seen vast evidence of the benefits trees provide for their landowners. For them, the role of trees in the landscape is not a question but a fact. In Burkina Faso and Kenya, where Ostwald has conducted a large part of her research, the trees are crucial for food production by maintaining ecosystem services important for food, fuel and fodder by regulating water flows and restoring degraded soils, and as a buffer when harvests fail.

However, when large-scale carbon capture initiatives take up huge areas to plant trees to mitigate climate change, they seldom take the local perspective into account. People need access to forest resources for their livelihoods, and plantations are the most resilient with a mix of species, preferably native, and uses. Tree plantations for carbon capture thus function best when they incorporate local uses as well as consider the landscape restoration. With current deforestation rates, many cleared areas are left exploited and degraded with small chances of regrowth unless restoration efforts are made with care.

Deforestation is driven by international demand

A common notion is that forests are cleared to give room for food production or provide livelihood opportunities to the local population. Deforestation is mainly driven by the international demand for four commodities – beef, soy, palm oil and certain wood products.

“We need to understand that forests are not chopped down just for fun, there is a logic behind it. That logic is often driven by a need to make a living and catch the money, which often comes from international demand for tropical products. How the demand for these four products should be reduced is up to the politicians and for each and every one of us to decide,” says Ostwald.

Although deforestation rates are increasing, forest areas that are being set aside for conservation and restoration are increasing worldwide, which means that countries and continents understand the value of keeping trees and forests intact.

What will the future of our forests and trees be  – heroes in the battle against climate change or victims in the climate crisis? – is up to us to decide together. When used intelligently, trees can help us build a more resilient world.

Read the panelists responses to questions from the online audience that they did not have time to answer live (in Swedish).

Participants: Anna Tengberg, Program manager for Swedish Water House, Swedish International Water Institute (SIWI), Madelene Ostwald, Docent at the Division of Environmental Systems Analysis, Chalmers University of Technology, Jonas Edblad, Architect at Wingårdhs Architects, and moderator Johan Uddling, Professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Gothenburg University. Reporting by: Linda Hansson, communications coordinator Focali.