In 1992 the United Nations met in Rio de Janiero in what’s now known as the Earth Summit. At this meeting, 172 governments participated to discuss continuing effects of climate change and how to stop it. One of the non-legally binding documents created from this event, Agenda 21, made several recommendations regarding the need for sustainable forestry practices to limit deforestation. This meeting prompted the creation of forest certification non-profit organizations that currently oversee sustainable forest management practices around the world. There are three of these organizations prevalent in North America: FSC, SFI, and PEFC.
The first international non-profit created after the 1992 Earth Summit in response to the need of forestry oversight is the FSC. In 1990, informal meetings among environmentalists, lumber traders, timber users, and human rights organizations took place in California. According to the FSC’s website, these meetings “highlighted the need for a system that could credibly identify well-managed forests as the sources of responsibly produced wood products.”
After the 1992 Earth Summit, it became apparent that this group must evolve into the international non-profit entity it is today. FSC is the world’s second largest forest certification program and as of October 2016, has certified more than 191 million hectares of forest area among 82 participating countries (one hectare is equal to 100 acres). They’re endorsed by the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.
The SFI program launched in 1994 in the United States, also in response to the 1992 Earth Summit, to promote sustainable forestry practices. It was the US forest sector’s contribution to promote sustainable forestry practices. SFI founders believe that there are different ways to sustainably manage forests that allows them to be more competitive in the market. Since their inception, they’ve garnered a great deal of industry support. In 2005, they were endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), which is the largest international certification program in the world. To date, more than 30 indigenous groups across North America manage over 2.0 million hectares of forest land, certified to the standards of SFI.
To give back to the industry, SFI program participants are required to invest money in forestry research, technology, and science. Since 1995, program participants have invested $1.4 billion USD.
The largest forest certification non-profit program on Earth is the PEFC. It was established in 1999 by national organizations from 11 countries. Whereas the FSC and SFI programs are audited by third parties in what’s considered to be a “top-down” process, the PEFC is considered a “bottom-up” process. The program enables “the development of national standards tailored to the political, economic, social, environmental and cultural realities of the respective countries, while at the same time ensuring compliance with internationally-accepted requirements and global recognition.” In other words, this system allows land owners within participating countries to use a forest management system that’s compliant with their local laws and international forestry standards.
The first countries to be PEFC certified were in the European Union. In 2004, forests in Australia and South America became certified, and in 2011, China came on board. As of June 2016, more than 300 million hectares are PEFC certified.
These programs were created to ensure forests will continue to sequester carbon and provide trees for future generations. Although each program is subject to criticism, their work has shown that there are different, effective ways to sustainably managing forests within the international community.
Forests absorb airborne carbon dioxide, store carbon in wood, and return pure fresh oxygen to the atmosphere. As that process continues, though, gases in the atmosphere absorb the planet’s heat and radiate it in all directions. When that heat cannot escape Earth’s atmosphere, the planet’s temperature warms.
Scientists estimate that nature is only able to remove about half of all carbon dioxide added to the environment. The good news is that forests, particularly those in North America, are continuously pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in solid wood. Because these forests are growing more than is being harvested, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that U.S. forests currently serve as a carbon ‘sink’, offsetting approximately 13% of U.S. emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Wood products harvested from forests continue to store carbon throughout their use. According to the Canadian Climate Forum’s Issue Paper #4 from Fall 2015, Canadian timber harvesting practices emit minimal greenhouse gases. Improvements are continually being made to the industry’s lumber manufacturing practices to reduces its carbon footprint.
Energy and greenhouse gas emissions to produce forest products are less than materials wood often replaces, such as metals, concrete and plastic. Canada’s forest products industry has been a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its manufacturing processes. Since 1990, the pulp and paper industry in Canada has reduced emissions by about 65%. This has been accomplished by replacing fossil fuels used for mill processes with low net-carbon emissions energy generated by burning wood residues once disposed of by burning without energy recovery.
The United States has about 751 million acres of forest area, equal to about one third of the country’s total land area. According to the 2010 National Report on Sustainable Forests, forty-four percent of United States forests are owned by local, state, or national governments and the rest are owned by private land owners. Sierra Pacific Industries, a forest products company, is one of the largest private land owners in the country, and is typical of how landowners approach sustainability. Regarding how their land is managed, Mark Pawlicki, the Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability for Sierra Pacific Industries, states,
“Sierra Pacific manages its forest lands on a sustainable basis. In California, we operate under the state’s rigid Forest Practices Act and Forest Practice Rules which require large timberland owners to not harvest more than they grow. In both California and Washington timber harvests are conducted only after a review and approval by state regulatory agencies. In addition, all of SPI’s 1.9 million acres of forests are certified under the independent Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which ensures that we are managing our lands on a sustainable basis for wood products, wildlife habitat, water quality, and other environmental attributes.”
Voluntary third-party forest certification began in the 1990s in response to market concerns about forest management and illegal logging, primarily in developing countries. Other widely used forest certification programs in North America are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programmme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Programs like these are all designed to assure consumers that the wood products they purchase have been produced sustainably. They are also assured that these forests are doing their part to offset fossil fuel carbon emissions.
Previous: The Carbon Cycle
This month marks the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, one of the most successful international treaties that has, among other things, reduced the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Forests are also critical in meeting the challenge of total emissions reductions through their ability to act as carbon sinks and safely remove carbon dioxide, CO2, from the atmosphere. Trees help the planet by absorbing carbon dioxide. They release the oxygen back into the environment and use the carbon internally, to produce sugars for growth. Trees continue to store carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere for the duration of its use, and those benefits are extended when those wood products are recycled time and time again. For more resources on the sustainability of North American forests, visit the reference section at the bottom of this page.
The ozone layer acts as a shield to protect Earth and all the plants and animals within it from ultraviolet radiation. In the 1970’s, scientists learned that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, had been migrating to the upper atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer.
The scientists involved in the initial discovery, Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work concerning the formation and depletion of the ozone layer. However, during the 1970’s, CFC’s were commonly found in household products like hairspray and deodorant. Years later in 1985, scientists discovered that the Antarctic ozone hole, a layer of ozone above the Antarctic, had been shrinking at higher rates than they originally calculated and it was proved that the widespread use of CFC’s had caused it. The international community responded with the Montreal Protocol to eliminate the production and sale of ozone-harming substances.
According to the United Nation’s Environment Programme, below are some of the successes of the Montreal Protocol
Since CFC’s and other ozone depleting substances are also global warming gasses, the reduction of one helped reduce the other. However, there’s still work to be done. Scientists estimate that the size of the Arctic ozone hole won’t return to pre-1970 levels until the middle of the 21st century, so the full impact of the Montreal Protocol might not be realized for at least another forty years. Moreover, the planet is still warming. At the Paris Climate Conference in December of 2015, 195 countries agreed to a global action plan that will limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. This historic breakthrough is the result of nine years of United Nations diplomats working together to stop global warming, requiring action from all countries. In an interview, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”