NINE STEPS TO ZERO: How wood alternatives can help meet the world's deforestation target
At COP26, 100+ global leaders embraced a goal of Zero Deforestation by 2030. Now, it’s time to bring our tools to the job.
In the flurry of news coming out of Glasgow, the zero-deforestation pledge stood out as an ambitious and historic major step forward in saving the world’s forests. Despite earlier declarations, over 99,000 square miles of forest were cleared in 2020 alone, according to Global Forest Watch, and parts of the Amazon rainforest now produce more carbon dioxide than they absorb.
However, COP26 brought a new level of visibility and commitment to the cause. According to the declaration, the nations whose leaders signed the deforestation pledge represent over 90% of the world’s forests, equating to a total of 14,223,845 square miles of forested lands. What’s more, the pledge was backed by commitments of $19.2B in public and private funding.
Saving the forests appeals to everYONE
Bold announcements can generate controversy, but conserving forests and forest land is the single most popular kind of climate policy proposal, according to the largest-ever public opinion survey ever conducted1.
Conservationists have long decried the exploitation of natural resources for short-term gain in ways that impoverish future generations. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, often dubbed the father of American conservationism: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
“Protect the forests” is also a rallying cry for many of today’s younger eco-conscious consumers. As green values come to define their identity, they increasingly demand to know that furniture, decking, siding and other home construction and renovation products come from sustainable sources.
1 - UNDP, “Peoples’ Climate Vote,” https://www.undp.org/press-releases/worlds-largest-survey-public-opinion-climate-change-majority-people-call-wide
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
— Teddy Roosevelt
Making growth sustainable
To stop deforestation by 2030, the world needs to create better incentives. Today, too often cutting and burning forests are used to open arable land for more profitable use in agriculture while wood remains the gold standard in building materials. For forests to be safe, they must be worth more standing than they are felled.
How can we rework the calculus in favor of trees? Is there a way to scale down the problem to manageable size, and make an impact on imperiled forests that may be half a world away?
Many believe the answer is yes. Choices made by consumers, developers, architects, builders percolate through the supply chain and reformulate the system of incentives that put forests at risk. Alongside policy choices, purchasing choices are key ingredients in creating what some call a “bioeconomy” in which the forests can thrive.
A bioeconomy, as described by Ioannis Ioannou of the London Business School and Ricardo M. de Assumpção, CEO of Grape ESG, refers to “sustainable primary production and processing systems that can produce more food, materials and other bio-based products with fewer inputs, significantly reduced environmental impacts and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”2
The term highlights the need to “gear economies in way which reuses and repurposes, and does not squander”—a sentiment familiar to any old-school conservationist. The idea of a bioeconomy is not to end or even slow growth, but to transform it, enhancing competitiveness and innovation in a way that lessens our reliance on extraction and reduces our impact on non-renewable resources.
2 - “Developing Bioeconomies and COP26: Realising the Ambition to Curb Deforestation,” Ioannis Ioannou, Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School and Ricardo M. de Assumpção, CEO, Grape ESG
The Adirondack chairs and the tongue and groove siding for this Austin, Texas barn renovation, were milled using ACRE sheet goods. ACRE is a new, innovative wood alternative made with upcycled rice hulls. See more of the renovation here: modern-mill.com/siding
How to evaluate the tree-friendliness of wood alternatives
Today, consumers can choose from a wide selection of materials for decking, siding, trim and other applications. These alternatives can help lessen the demand for lumber, easing the strain on the world’s trees and ensuring that even when wood alone will do, it can be sourced from sustainably harvested forests.
Some materials do a better job at creating a “circulating” economy that takes waste out of the equation. In evaluating wood alternatives, consumers and building professionals can consider these nine factors:
- Sustainability. If we want to extract fewer natural resources, we need to make better use of the resources we already extract. Materials that would otherwise be discarded, particularly waste and byproducts from existing manufacturing processes is a great start.
- Mainstream appeal. For a product to make a measurable impact on the environment, it must appeal to mainstream tastes. Consumers like to be green, but they also want to buy products with the look, feel and warmth of real wood — and perform.
- Easy substitution. The home construction industry is mostly built around wood. Saws, hammers, drills, glue, nails, and screws are all designed to handle lumber. If we want to swap in a substitute material, it should be available in standard dimensions, and require no special equipment, tools, or training to work with.
- Competitive features. Enticement works better than enforcement. The public resisted compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) mandates, but eagerly adopted energy-saving LEDs due to their superior features. In the same way, a wood alternative should be more than just green: it should offer clear advantages like the ability to easily paint, stain, or use new crafting techniques such as thermoforming.
- CIRCULAR/Zero waste manufacturing. Consumers expect a product that promises to reduce waste to also produce little or no waste during its manufacturing process.
- 100% recyclability. Recyclability is a table-stakes requirement for products promoted as eco-friendly.
- Durability. Durability is even more important than recycling for keeping materials out of landfills. After harvesting and processing, materials should remain in use for as long as possible, avoiding the need to consume additional resources to recycle and replace them. Wood alternatives should deliver premium performance and resist weather, water, mold, rot, pests, and other forces of wear and tear.
- Economic viability. The COP26 declaration focuses on delivering sustainable development and promoting rural transformation. Some wood alternatives are made from upcycled agricultural waste, which can help local farmers and communities unlock additional sources of revenue.
- Shortened supply lines. Local sourcing is not only less wasteful than using global transportation lines, but it’s also more resilient and less prone to interruption, as we have seen dramatically demonstrated over the past several years.
We can all imagine a greener world where forests are no longer dwindling, but instead spread their branches ever wider over the earth. More than 100 of the world’s leaders promised to bring us there in less than a decade. Can we do it? Thanks to relentless innovation, the building industry now has the tools to help make it happen. The question is how quickly we will decide to use them.
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