Planting for the Future

How Demand for Wood Products Could Be Friendly to Tropical Forests

Published Oct 1, 2014 Updated Oct 8, 2014


Demand for wood products such as paper, furniture and construction materials is a major cause of damage to tropical forests—and that demand is projected to increase over the next half-century.

The good news is that there are ways to satisfy that demand sustainably. The UCS report Planting for the Future combines economic modeling with ecological theory and data to evaluate the impact of increased demand on tropical forests, and shows how innovative management practices, reinforced by effective policy and consumer awareness, can meet projected wood product needs while also conserving forests.

Demand for wood and its impact on forests

Wood is a ubiquitous part of everyday life. We use it for building materials, furniture, paper and packaging, and as an energy source.

Unfortunately, much of this wood is produced in ways that damage tropical forests. Some of this damage comes in the form of outright deforestation, in which forests are completely cut down and replaced by farms or pastures.

But even where logging is more selective, and most trees are left standing, collateral damage from the logging process can harm several trees for each one cut down. Management practices that can minimize this damage exist, but are being used in only 5 percent of managed tropical forests. 

Photo: Amber Karnes/Flickr
Photo: Amber Karnes/Flickr

Different forests, different products

Forest management approaches vary according to the species being grown and the products they will be used for. Planting for the Future focuses on four approaches in particular:

Fast wood monocultures. These plantations are typically used to produce paper, charcoal, and wood-based panels; the most common species are eucalyptus (especially in Brazil, India, and South Africa) and acacia (mostly in south and southeast Asia).  The impact of fast wood monocultures varies depending on prior uses of the land: in Brazil, for instance, fast wood plantations are most often grown on former pastures, while in Southeast Asia they often replace natural forests and have become a major driver of deforestation.

Intermediate-rotation hardwood plantations. Intermediate-rotation plantations are primarily used to grow softwoods such as pine and spruce in temperate regions, but some tropical hardwoods are grown in this way—most notably teak. Some teak still comes from natural forests rather than plantations.

Long-rotation hardwood plantations. These are used for selected high-value species, allowing producers to avoid logging natural forests. Because of their economic challenges—capital is tied up for decades waiting for trees to mature—these plantations are found in very few places.

Logged natural forests. Selective logging of natural forests can be sustainable, but it is difficult to manage, and poorly implemented selective logging is a primary cause of forest degradation. Reduced-impact logging (RIL) can prevent many of the adverse effects of selective logging. Another option for reducing the impact of natural-forest logging is to rely on secondary forests, which have already been disturbed by previous human activity.

Photo: Andika Putraditama-World Resources Institute/Flickr
Photo: Andika Putraditama-World Resources Institute/Flickr

The future of the global forestry sector

Using an economic model known as the Global Forest Products Model and data sourced from the Food and Agriculture Organization's Statistical Database, Planting for the Future projects future demand for wood products through 2060. The results show that while overall consumption will increase, the relative proportions of different wood products will change, with absolute consumption of some products actually decreasing:

  • Pulp and paper consumption will increase by more than 100 percent.
  • Solid wood products will grow at a slower rate, between 28 and 61 percent.
  • Consumption of wood for fuel will decrease by 23 percent, as developing countries follow a path similar to industrialized nations, away from wood and toward oil, gas, and renewable energy.

Since the fastest projected growth is in pulp and paper, fast wood plantations—which primarily produce wood for these uses—are likely to play a larger role in the future wood market. Therefore it is particularly important that these plantations be sustainable.

Photo: Biodiversity International/Flickr
Photo: Biodiversity International/Flickr

Creating a sustainable forest future

Meeting increased demand for wood in a sustainable way will require effective government policies, innovative technologies, and informed consumers. Here are some of the strategies the report recommends:

Timber tracking. If we want to vote for sustainability with our wallets, we need reliable information about where our wood comes from. There are several different technologies for tracking wood from source to consumer, ranging in complexity from simple labeling to bar coding to isotope fingerprinting.

Multispecies plantations. Ecological theory suggests that multiple species can make more efficient use of limited resources than a single species. And there is evidence that applying this theory to forest management can lead to improved soil quality, quicker growth, and higher timber yields. Multispecies plantations are more expensive to manage than monocultures, but these costs could be offset by increased yields and environmental benefits. Policies to encourage multispecies plantations could have both economic and environmental benefits. However, more research is needed in order to better understand how and where these plantations will work best.

Future impacts in key markets. Market forces can influence forestry practices in several ways:

  • Forestry contributes to economic growth in developing countries, and conversely, rising wealth in those countries increases domestic demand for wood products, so sustainably grown wood products are needed globally.
  • Consumer demand for sustainable wood has led to expanded markets for certified wood as well as independent verification efforts such as the recent agreement between the Rainforest Alliance and Indonesian industry giant Asia Pulp and Paper.
  • Policies such as carbon taxes have been proposed as a way to make carbon storage a more valuable use of forests than wood products. However, the report finds that such measures may be less effective than other policy incentives, such as strict logging limitations combined with reduced-impact logging.

There are two possible futures: one in which demand for wood products is met in a sustainable way, and another in which business-as-usual production continues to degrade and destroy tropical forests.

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