Awareness of the destruction wrought by deforestation for agricultural commodities such as beef and soy has – thankfully – grown in recent years among policymakers and the public. Responding to mounting pressure, the European Union (EU) has finally promised to put the issue centre-stage, with its proposed action plan on deforestation.
Less well known are the dangers of forest degradation and loss. This is where forest landscapes are changed, even if not deforested entirely.
Global Forest Watch have made the scale and impacts of this loss strikingly tangible, revealing almost 30 million hectares of forests were lost in 2017 (an area about the size of Italy), with a type of destruction that is on the rise.
Earlier analysis indicates that while about 27% of this forest loss is permanent deforestation, most of it is a different kind of forest loss, like shifting cultivation for rural livelihoods that allows the trees to grow back later, or wildfire.
In about a quarter of the cases, loss is caused by logging by mostly northern forest industries which are often turning natural forests into faster growing plantations, clear cutting northern boreal forests, or just turning diverse ecosystems into more manageable rows of trees.
EU studies into the drivers of deforestation claim that the impacts of forest industries, such as paper, are too small to bother with. But these statistics show that forest industries affect an area similar to that of deforestation, with significant impacts on forests’ biodiversity, resilience and carbon storage capacity.
It’s time the EU took a closer look at the industries driving this.
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), 35-40 per cent of the trees cut for industrial purposes will be turned into paper products. While much of this wood comes from above mentioned “forestry practices”, there’s clear evidence, including from Indonesia, that some of this wood also comes from deforestation.
The paper and pulp industry is not too choosy about the kind of wood fibre they need – it has to be plentiful, cheap and preferably fast-growing. Vast, monotonous plantations of eucalyptus, acacia and other rapidly-growing species are therefore the side-products of our paper consumption (this kind of wood is not of much interest to the sawnwood or veneer industry).
Paper and pulp industry needs have also been central to the development of “sustainable forest management” definitions which emphasise efficient growth and large volumes of wood, rather than diverse forest ecosystems or wood fibre quality. Thinning and clear-cutting suits the industry much better than the selective logging advocated by many European conservation groups.
As the coordinator of Environmental Paper Network International, people often ask me whether paper is worth worrying about as we move towards paper-free books, bills and news.
But the truth is that paper consumption is shifting, not reducing. Per capita paper consumption is slightly declining in the highest using areas such as the USA and Europe, but this decline has been more than compensated by the increase in paper consumption in Asia.
And while newsprint and printing paper consumption is indeed on the decline, this is more than compensated by the growth in wrapping and packaging paper. A striking 55% of global paper consumption is now made of wrapping and packaging, meaning global paper consumption is also on the rise – from 392 million tonnes in 2010 to 410 million tonnes in 2017.
This is bad news for the forests which are facing increasing pressures, and terrible news for the climate. Paper products have a short lifespan – on average half of the products (and the carbon they stored) are gone in just two years – and the other half doesn’t last much longer. To meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals, we need to immediately move from using trees to produce packaging, to protecting and restoring them, cutting them only for long life products.