Bielefeld, Germany, 21 March 2022 – On the International Day of Forests, the Environmental Paper Network (EPN) is sounding the alarm about the growing threats to the world’s forests, posed by the biomass energy and pulp & paper industries. Governments should become aware that the industries’ current levels of forest exploitation and growing volumes of commodities are inherently unsustainable, and pretending otherwise is greenwashing.

This year’s theme for the International Day of Forests is “forests and sustainable production and consumption”. This is misleading, because it ignores the escalating destruction and degradation of forests as production and consumption of forest commodities continually expands, says nothing about languishing forest protection and regeneration, and implies that ongoing competition between keeping and caring for our forests on one hand, and logging at industrial scales on the other hand, can be ignored under a mantra of alleged sustainability.

This year’s theme also ignores the people living on the front lines of forest destruction, who lose homes, health and livelihoods, and suffer brutal repression and dispossession, are already amongst the most marginalised and structurally oppressed. There is nothing ‘sustainable’ about their fate.

The industrial wood-based paper and biomass burning industries obscure the issues. They fail to distinguish between the differing states of earth’s remaining forests or acknowledge the impacts of their growing exploitation:

  • When an intact natural forest is brought into industrial production it loses 40-60% of its carbon. It remains within that range of depletion over logging cycles, and never regains its full carbon carrying capacity until it is allowed to recover to its former intact state. When an intact natural forest is converted to a monoculture plantation it loses 80% of its carbon.
  • Conversion of natural forests and other precious ecosystems into monoculture tree plantations, often involving land-grabbing, is a social and environmental tragedy that is presented by companies as ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’, due the improper definition of monoculture tree plantations as ‘forests’ by FAO. In reality however, they actually resemble commodity-driven agriculture.

The importance of protecting and restoring natural forests for climate mitigation was recognised in the outcome of the UN Climate Conference held in Glasgow late last year, highlighted in clause 21. The natural forests of the world are crucial for the wellbeing of humanity, and it is vital they are left standing to address the two great environmental crises of our time – the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. They are home to many millions of Indigenous people in whose care they are best kept whole and healthy.

Yet the trend to substitute coal with wood is escalating, led by Europe, whose bad habit is now being emulated in South Korea and Japan. Wood pellets are the major commodity feeding this industry, and the predicted increase in demand of more than 250% in the decade 2017-2027 looks to be exceeded. The demand for wood is also incentivising the creation of ecologically destructive monoculture tree plantations in South America, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific.

INDUSTRIES’ RESPONSIBILITIES

The biomass industry. Burning wood at large scale to produce electricity or heat, immediately releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal, per unit of energy produced, and this is scientifically proven. On top of worsening climate change during a critical period in which we must dramatically reduce emissions, it also undermines the capacity of forests to store carbon and continue to pull it out of the atmosphere.

The pulp & paper industry. Paper and cardboard are increasingly claimed to be sustainable substitutes for throwaway plastics. Unsurprisingly then this industry is also expanding its sources, particularly in South America and Indonesia, to the detriment of people and the environment. Just as with forest biomass, industrial logging and monoculture plantations for pulp and paper simultaneously reduce the capacity of forests to sequester carbon and harm the ecosystems of plants and wildlife that maintain clean air, water, and soils.

Paper, especially tissue, and disposable cardboard have a large carbon footprint and contribute to the climate crisis at every step of the production process. As short lived, ephemeral products they find their way as carbon to the atmosphere within a year or two. We need to restrain needless production and consumption if we want to achieve sustainability, as the real problem is single use packaging, be it paper or plastic, and our absurdly profligate consumption habits.

There is a direct link between the biomass and the paper & pulp industry as, increasingly, pulp and paper factories around the world are building biomass power stations in order to profit from the additional income stream they receive from burning biomass. These power stations are often purposefully built oversized, incentivising ever greater wood consumption than simply that associated with pulp production, and facilitating the exploitation of new sources of biomass from forests and monoculture tree plantations.

We therefore call for the dual, related threats of burning wood biomass for energy and unsustainable production and consumption of single use paper and cardboard to be addressed. The International Day of Forests should urge decision makers, corporations, communities and individuals to actively promote and pursue:

  • Protection and restoration of natural forests, an end to deforestation and a reduction of forest degradation.
  • A program of slowing and reversing the threats to the world’s forests – including by acknowledging that climate goals are harmed and not helped by exploiting forests at scale to produce polluting energy and single use commodities.
  • Declaration that forest biomass energy is not an eligible ‘renewable’ energy source for government subsidies and incentives.
  • Increase paper recovery and recycling, and introduce restraints on production of single use paper and cardboard packaging

Find out more in our Global Paper Vision & Biomass Delusion Statement

CONTACT: Luisa Colasimone, EPN International coordinator luisa(at)environmentalpaper.org

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