by Richard Welford
The dual challenges of economic turmoil and climate change are bringing the management of forests to the forefront of global interest. International demand for wood and wood products might have slumped
amid the global recession but that does not take the pressure off the world’s forests. The need to reform forestry institutions and increase investments in science and technology are key to the better management of forests, notes the State of the World’s Forests, 2009.
Production is falling in response in all segments of the industry but the report warns that this is not altogether good news for the fight against illegal logging and deforestation. It says investment in sustainable forest management could suffer, playing into the hands of illegal and unsustainable logging operations.
A highly mixed situation is forecast for the future, with gains in forest area in some regions and losses in others. Countries in the early stages of development in particular tend to struggle with immense pressures on their forests. The trade-offs between immediate economic compulsions and long term benefits are challenging. Institutional weaknesses remain the most important problem, but also the most difficult to solve.
The global economic turmoil has resulted in reduced demand for wood but that has led to shrinking investments in forest industries and forest management, finds the report released last week. Although demand for wood is down, stronger forest management and greater investments in science and technology are needed to handle the dual challenges posed by the financial crisis and climate change, says the reports.
It says that adapting forestry institutions to rapid changes in the larger environment is a major challenge. The report expresses concern that the economic downturn could lead governments to water down ambitious green targets or defer key policy decisions related to climate change mitigation and adaptation as they focus on economic priorities.
Initiatives for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation that are dependent on international financial transfers could also face problems. Of particular importance is the need to re-invent public sector forestry agencies that have been slow in adapting to changing customer needs.
The report warns that contraction of formal economic sectors can open opportunities for expansion of the informal sector and could lead to more illegal logging. The most dramatic change will be the rapid increase in the use of wood as a source of energy, particularly in Europe, as a result of policies promoting greater use of renewable energy, the report states.
But there are also opportunities arising from the current crisis. Increased attention on green development could provide a new direction to the development of the forest sector. Planting trees, increased investments in sustainable forest management, and active promotion of wood in green building practices and renewable energy could all become integral parts of a new development focus.
Other reports suggest that ten million new jobs could be created by investing in sustainable forest management. As more jobs are lost due to the current economic downturn, sustainable forest management could become a means of creating millions of green jobs, thus helping to reduce poverty and improve the environment. Since forests and trees are vital storehouses of carbon, such an investment could also make a major contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
But increasing frequency of droughts, declining water supplies and floods strain coping mechanisms at the local and national levels and undermine efforts to manage forests sustainably.
In Asia and the Pacific, home to more than half of the world's population with some of the most densely populated countries in the world, demand for wood and wood products is expected to continue to increase in line with the growth in population and income.
Asia and the Pacific had 734 million hectares of forest in 2005, about three million hectares more than in 2000. But the report shows that this increase was largely a result of the high afforestation rate in China, masking significant loss of natural forests in a number of other countries. While the region is a leader in planted forests, Asia and the Pacific will continue to depend on wood from other regions, as land and water constraints will limit the scope for self-sufficiency in wood and wood products. On the plus side, falls in prices for some tropical crops, including palm oil and rubber, will ease pressure for land clearing in some countries.
However, low- and middle-income forest rich countries will witness continuing declines as a result of the expansion of agriculture, including the production of bio-fuel feedstock. Moreover, demand for wood and wood products will continue to increase in line with the growth in population and income. Growth in the demand for primary commodities as a result of the rapid industrialization of emerging economies is also likely to result in forest conversion within and outside the region.
Whilst the region has to some extent become a leader in planted forest development, it will continue to draw in imports of wood from other regions and there is limited scope for self-sufficiency. This will negatively impact forests outside Asia. The demand for forest environmental services is set to increase and involving local communities in the opportunities that arise is an important consideration.
But the report warns that climate change is increasingly threatening forest health. Climate change is worsening pest infestations. The loss of trees is releasing more carbon than that from forest fires in spite of efforts to salvage the timber, which continues to store carbon.
There are both opportunities and threats posed by the recession. As ever concerted efforts are needed to protect this valuable resource. ■