Forestry is a carbon-neutral industry and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the body of scientists who are leading the world’s assessment of the climate change challenge – advises countries to extend their total area under afforestation.
In its Fifth Assessment Report, which is its latest, the IPCC lists sustainable agriculture and forestry as examples of activities beneficial for the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.
Other activities in the same category include energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources, the greening of cities and recycling water.
Forestry plantations absorb considerably more carbon dioxide than the grasslands they replace in South Africa, says Iain Kerr of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) chemical engineering department.
The emissions generated by the forestry industry are largely due to the use of fossil fuels. These are offset by the carbon sequestration capacity of trees grown and the carbon stored in harvested wood products.
Trees absorb considerable amounts of carbon while they are growing, but none when they are mature. This is why the sustainable harvesting of fully grown trees, and replacing them by replanting, helps to sequester more carbon than leaving mature trees in place, Iain says.
Treated timber harvested from sustainable forests is the most climate-friendly option for utility poles, needed to provide electricity in Africa, as the timber is considered carbon neutral.
When timber is used as construction timber or utility poles, the carbon it contains is sequestered for the lifespan of these products. Treated timber harvested from sustainable forests is the most climate-friendly option for utility poles, needed to provide electricity in Africa, as the timber is considered carbon neutral.
In contrast, says website www.forestryexplained.co.za, the production of both concrete and aluminium releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
The Paper Manufacturers’ Association of South Africa (PAMSA) has appealed to the South African government to include forestry’s carbon sequestration capacity into its calculations for how the planned carbon tax would be levied on the industry. National Treasury has agreed on such an inclusion, subject to approval of the methodology by the Department of Environmental Affairs.
The carbon tax was expected to be levied in January 2019 but has been delayed until 1 June 2019.
All wooden products are excellent carbon sinks. Paper, pulp and timber products lock in carbon for as long as the products are in use. If wood is eventually composted, the process produces some carbon. However, this is considered part of the normal life cycle of organic material, as the carbon produced is necessary for, and used up in, the natural process of further vegetation growth, observes Iain.
Research by MSc Engineering students in the UKNZ’s chemical engineering department shows that one hectare of eucalyptus trees sequesters 266 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 12 years it typically takes for the trees to reach harvesting age, and one hectare of pine trees absorbs 366 tonnes of carbon dioxide over 25 years.
In South Africa, the forestry and forest product industry adds R23 billion to the country’s GDP, constituting 4.1% of manufacturing GDP and 21.3% of agricultural GDP, and employing about 150 000 people, says The Paper Story, a website produced by PAMSA.
Only about 40% of photocopy paper is recycled in South Africa. The need for improvement of this aspect lies in waste paper collection from households, schools and businesses.
However, on average, 85% of cardboard and paper packaging is recycled, in substantial part due to the many informal collectors of recyclable materials. This packaging is typically recycled seven times before ending up in a landfill or being composted.
In an achievement that is not common knowledge, South Africa has “among the world’s best figures for the recycling of recoverable paper”, with 70% of this paper recycled in 2017, says Iain.