Certified tropical timber delivers carbon benefits

Using certified tropical timber results in lower carbon impacts than using not just more energy intensive non-wood materials, but also non-certified tropical timber. In fact, a new report says, taking the range of factors into account, from materials substitution to the avoidance of forest degradation entailed in its production, the volume of certified tropical timber imported into the EU every year may represent millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions saved.

‘Carbon footprint of tropical timber’ is one of the first efforts to estimate the carbon benefits of certified tropical wood and was commissioned by IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative from analyst Rupert Oliver of Forest Industries Intelligence.

The report references a range of previous studies and focuses on three core topics; the long-term effects of tropical timber’s felling cycle; life cycle analysis – that is the environmental impacts associated with the material from harvest, through various stages of processing and use; and the potential for carbon emission reductions resulting from using certified tropical timber instead of alternative non-wood industrial materials.

It acknowledges that calculating a precise carbon footprint for certified tropical timber is currently very difficult. Certification schemes do not collect the necessary data and, it says, scaling one-off timber operation assessments globally involves a ‘great deal of uncertainty’.  Within this context, however, the report aims to present a ‘rough model for carbon accounting, with the expectation this will evolve as more data becomes available’.

It looks at the relative carbon impacts of reduced impact logging (RIL), which is associated with certified forest management, and conventional logging (CL) used in non-certified forest. It is estimated that forty years after harvest using reduced impact logging, which minimises damage to the forest in the way trees are felled and logs extracted, forest carbon stocks are back to pre-harvest levels or higher. But using conventional logging and assuming two ‘premature re-entry’ harvests, which would not be allowed in certified forest,  ‘carbon stocks continue to decline until all merchantable trees are harvested’.

On life cycle assessment, the report says that comprehensive analysis by the American Hardwood Export Council for US hardwoods can, with some assumptions, be translated to tropical timber. Using this approach, it is estimated that the ‘gate to gate’ global warming potential (over the standard 100 year calculation period) of light red meranti is 601 kg CO2 per tonne, excluding biogenic carbon. The equivalent figure for steel, or concrete, for example, would be many multiples of that amount.

Focusing further on substitution of other materials by wood, the report cites sources giving averages of between 1.2kg to 2kg of CO2 emissions saved per kg of other industrial material substituted.

It concludes by urging further research into its topic and development of a single harmonized life cycle assessment methodology to assess the carbon footprint of certified tropical wood products. Ultimately, it maintains, this has potential to grow their production and sales.
“More accurate systems of carbon accounting will drive demand and financing for certified tropical timber, and help preserve the long-term environmental and social health of forest regions,” it says.

Click here for the full report.