Sustainable forestry practices advancing in B.C.

When delegates arrive in Vancouver this coming week from member countries around the world for a high-level United Nations session on forests, B.C. will have a rare opportunity to showcase the progress it's made on sustainable forest management.

Foresters understand that forests are so much more than simply a collection of trees. In practical terms, forests are a system that sustains myriad species, protects soil, cleans the water, purifies the air, and provides spiritual respite as well as important economic opportunities to a wide range of communities through the generation of countless goods and services.

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Within that broad context, and taking into account long-term, cradle-to-grave thinking, delegates will discuss ways to minimize waste and maximize value in the context of our forests, and to rethink entire supply chains from the perspective of sustainable forests, the re-use of materials and the elimination of waste and pollution.

A key theme policy-makers will discuss is the concept of the circular economy and forests. You'll be familiar with the circular economy concept, although perhaps under different terms. It describes a regenerative system where resource inputs, waste, emissions, and energy leakage are minimized through narrowing or closing energy and material loops.

In other words, the circular economy is focussed less on "taking, making and wasting" and more on reducing, re-using and recycling without a resulting loss in either revenues or in consumer satisfaction.

Think of it as a basic tenet of sustainability. If you've followed discussions on forests and the changes that have occurred in how they're managed, you'll understand how well-suited forests are to the UN's coming session on the topic.

The fact is, the circular economy holds real opportunity for growth and trade; but it will also require continual innovation.

My organization has been a leading voice in this discussion for decades, having participated in the process from its early stage when the circular economy was little understood, to today when international bodies are pushing the concept forward with gusto.

And yet, for forest managers the discussion is second nature. For example, some will recall Richard Branson's Earth Challenge to award $25 million to the individual or group that demonstrated a commercially viable design for the net removal of human-caused, atmospheric greenhouse gases - without causing harmful effects.

In a way that solution already exists. While forests can contribute to climate change through wildfires, insect infestations and disease, forest managers know that a well-managed forest stores carbon, which is sequestered in the resulting forest product's life cycle.

Wood construction, furniture, flooring, dimensional lumber - even paper products such as books in libraries - are carbon banks, and maintain the CO2 in place. Regenerating the trees on the managed land sequesters even more carbon, and the cycle continues virtually in perpetuity.

More exciting is that, through new ways of approaching forests and the economy - whether that's nanotechnology, renewable energy, advances in durable building materials or further developments in other higher value forest products, the UN discussion will place forestry even further ahead of the sustainability curve.

The majority of trees (about two thirds) in Canada and the U.S. are used for lumber, storing carbon for the medium to long term. Equally important, paper is recycled more than any other commodity, extending supply, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and saving landfill space - all attributes of a circular forest economy.

Further, today's sustainable forestry allows for all parts of a tree to be used and re-used, creating products beyond saw logs, pulp wood and paper. For example, residual fibre from sawmills is converted into products from fuel pellets to textiles - so virtually nothing is wasted. And forest products are increasingly seen as a solution to other environmental issues facing communities - plastic waste and its effects on ocean health.

Products from well-managed, renewable forests are the perfect input for this circular economy. That's why the forest sector is well-positioned at the leading edge globally. The sector will continue to identify ways in which the re-usable and recyclable nature of forest products can combine with other manufacturing processes, resulting in new products from what once was considered "waste."

-- Kathy Abusow is president & CEO of SFI Inc., which works to show how responsible forest management enhances the environmental, economic and social values that matter to all of us. She will chair a panel discussion during the 76th session of the Committee on Forests and the Forest Industry, convened in Vancouver Monday through Friday by the UN Economic Commission for Europe.

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