Paper – the forgotten forest commodity

January 21, 2019
Author:
Sini Eräjää

As the world awakes to the threat posed by palm oil and soy to our forests, it’s in danger of overlooking how paper and packaging drives industrial logging, mis-shapes millions of hectares of forest landscapes and creates monoculture plantations. New solutions are urgently needed to address this, says Environmental Paper Network (EPN) International coordinator Sini Eräjää.

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

What is less well known is the dangers of forest degradation and loss, where forest landscapes are changed even if not deforested entirely. Global Forest Watch have made the scale and impacts of this kind of loss strikingly tangible, revealing we lost almost 30 million hectares of forests 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 per cent 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 the impacts of forest industries such as the paper industry 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 per cent 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 don’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.  

If we are serious about restoring our forest landscapes – whether for the sake of climate emissions, wildlife or livelihoods - we need go further than just trying to halt deforestation. To restore existing forests degraded by logging as well as degraded lands, we need less plantations and more complex forests that accumulate carbon in old trees and dense vegetation. And for such a shift to be possible, we need to use less valuable wood fibres for industrial purposes and particularly for throwaway items like tissues, print papers and packaging, and more for products that store the carbon for longer periods.

The unfolding of the challenge to restore the world’s forests starts here with our paper consumption choices.

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This blog has been released to coincide with the denkhausbremen and Environmental Paper Network (EPN) “Paper Saving – Packaging in Focus” Conference in Bremen, Germany. It brings NGOs, manufacturers, and retailers together to work out solutions and strategies for the responsible use of paper for packaging.

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