According to the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) several studies assert that a ‘great reversal’ is underway as the world's forests recover following centuries of loss and decline.
One of the studies performed by scientists at Rockefeller University in the USA and the University of Helsinki in Finland highlights that forest area in North America, Europe and Asia is rising and the density of forests is increasing in all regions of the world. As such, AHEC says that for each hectare of forest, the volume of standing timber and therefore the tonnage of carbon stored and kept out of the atmosphere is higher now than in the past.
These results complement preliminary data released from an on-going Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study by global sustainability consultancy ‘PE International’ which reveal the strong environmental performance of American hardwoods underpinned by an expanding forest resource, sustainable management and low carbon emissions.
Particularly encouraging, says AHEC, is the carbon footprint of kiln dried American hardwood lumber which shows that sequestration of carbon during the growth of the tree more than offsets total carbon emissions during extraction, processing and shipment to South Africa.
AHEC also draws on a detailed analysis of U.S. government forest inventory data gathered over the last 60 years which shows a parallel between rising demand for timber and the healthy growth of forests. The data shows that the volume of hardwood standing in U.S. forests has increased by more than 100 per cent, from 5.2 billion m³ to 11.4 billion m³ between 1953 and 2007. According to AHEC, this expansion of resources has occurred despite a significant increase in global wood demand.
“Contrary to popular belief, timber harvesting is beneficial to the forests and to the environment, whereas conversion of forested land to agricultural land has many adverse effects,” said Roderick Wiles, AHEC Director for Africa, Middle East, India and Oceania. “These include chemical, physical and biological alterations in soil, soil erosion, alterations in soil micro-organisms, reduction in biodiversity, chemical contamination of soil and water, alterations of natural mineral cycles, displacement of native species and disruption of ecosystems"
“All of this can be avoided by protecting our forests, which play a strategic role in preserving our environment by acting as a natural carbon sink. As such, effective forest management and regeneration are key to protecting and even increasing the world’s forest resources.”
According to AHEC, low levels of utilization have seen hardwood volume in U.S. forests surge in spite of increasing harvests levels, which currently stands under 100 million m³ and are predicted to exceed 250 million m³ over the next 40 years. AHEC explains that an economically vibrant forest products sector not only contributes to the healthy growth of forests, but can also help influence sustainable forestry policies and practices that align with the sustainable supply and demand of timber: a win-win situation for the environment on all counts.
As such, AHEC advocates a focus on forest governance and land reform in order to ensure that timber harvesting and forest industries remain sustainable in the long-term. AHEC adds that forest value can be simultaneously boosted by generating demand for sustainably-managed forest products.
“With the impending release of LCA assessment results later this year and the potential for the development of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for US hardwood products, the outlook remains positive,” says Wiles. “The strategic environmental advantages provided by American hardwoods might prompt you to ask whether this could be the most environmentally-friendly building material on the planet."
“Moreover, the low carbon footprint of the resource should further encourage architects and interior designers in South Africa to work with the diverse palette of US hardwoods across the multitude of projects being built in the region. Looking at the bigger picture, by ensuring that the forest products sector continues to flourish through continued demand for timber and timber-derived products, we can safeguard the regeneration and management of forests globally.”