The theme for this year’s International Day of Forests on 21 March is “Forests and Energy”.
Forest-based energy sources such as biomass, wood and charcoal are well-known sources of energy. In many African countries charcoal and firewood represent more than 80 per cent of energy consumption. But new forms of energy are also being derived from forests.
Bioenergy derived from biological materials such as wood, if sustainably managed, can be considered renewable because new trees or other plants can replace those that have been converted to energy. Its net benefit in terms of climate change mitigation depends on the balance between carbon dioxide (CO2) captured during plant growth and CO2 released when producing, processing, transporting and burning the fuel.
In Europe, by Lake Saimaa in Finland, stands a new biorefinery – one of a kind. It produces renewable diesel, a residue of pulp production made from the resin of wood. The novel biofuel, which can be used in cars, buses or trucks without modification, is called UPM BioVerno, and significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions.
The biorefinery is run by 50 workers, with 150 others employed indirectly in Finland, for example as drivers or to market the product. When the biorefinery is in full swing, 10 tank trucks will leave the factory every day for distribution. According to Wasted – Europe’s Untapped Resource, similar solutions could cover 16 per cent of all of Europe’s road transport fuel by 2030 and bring another 15 billion euros annually to the rural economy in Europe.
Transcarpathian region, Ukraine. © Vasiliy "for the UN Environment Shaping Forests photo competition 2016"
While Finland’s biofuel innovation is important, the potential for woody mass to become part of the fuel mix of tomorrow has been largely untapped. It could help deliver energy goals as well as targets on sustainable mobility.
But there are risks: as the world’s population grows and competition for land becomes more acute, producing more bioenergy could increase food and water shortages, and destroy natural habitats.
Forests are a major source of biodiversity, food, fuel and jobs, and are central to achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Here are some of the ways in which forests help us achieve the Goals.
Climate-change benefits of forests
There is mounting evidence that complex and old-growth forest ecosystems continue to sequester and store high amounts of carbon. Sustainable forest management can improve the climate-mitigation functions through the protection of remaining primary forests, by enhancing carbon stocks, and through afforestation and reforestation. Sustainably managed forests also have an important role to play in climate change adaptation.
Many of our cereals, fruits and medicines come from forests, which play a major role in protecting biodiversity.
Human beings are only just beginning to discover the potential medicinal properties of many species of trees and shrubs which have hitherto been regarded as commercially irrelevant. Trees from the Vernonia genus, for example, which chimpanzees regularly seek out when sick, have been found to contain chemical compounds that show promise in treating parasites such as pinworm, hookworm and giardia in humans.
Another example is the recent discovery of a new cancer-killing compound called taxol, which is found within the Pacific Yew, a tree that was previously disregarded as having no commercial value.
Anavilhanas National Park, Amazonas State, Brazil. © José Sabino "for the UN Environment Shaping Forests photo competition 2016"
Goods and services provided by forests are consistently undervalued in standard economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product. As a result, forests are degraded and used unsustainably, which impacts many groups in society, not least the rural poor, who often depend on timber and other ecosystem goods and services for their livelihoods.
By investing in forests there is tremendous scope for reducing poverty.
Jobs and innovation
An estimated 1.6 billion people use forests as sources of livelihoods and income, for example by gathering building materials, fruits, nuts, mushrooms, honey and medicinal plants, harvesting wood, grazing livestock and hunting game. Forests are also sources of genetic material for horticultural crops and trees, which can contribute significantly to household incomes. And forests provide more than just direct benefits, but ideas and solutions which create jobs and increase sustainability in other sectors, such as biomimicry, which copies the solutions nature has developed over millions of years of evolution.
Another example is “Dye-sensitized solar”. Based on photosynthesis in leaves, this invention has recently become competitive with conventional solar in terms of efficiency and cost. Dye-sensitive solar cells (also called Graetzel cells) work the way leaves do, lassoing the sun’s energy with dye. This leaf-inspired innovation can be manufactured without toxins, at low temperatures, and can be flexible or integrated into a building skin such as transparent and semi-transparent windows.
So while the focus of this year’s International Day of Forests is “Energy”, the Day is also an opportunity for us to remind ourselves of the crucial role forests play in achieving healthy ecosystems, sustainable development, and progress on many different fronts.