Responsible forestry - the antidote to plastic

While life without plastic might be hard to imagine, there is a renewable, recyclable and sustainable alternative to single-use plastics and many other fossil fuel derivatives: wood from responsibly managed plantations and forests. This is the message from Forestry South Africa (FSA) ahead of the 54th annual Earth Day (22 April 2024).

“Since inception in 1970, Earth Day has grown into one of the largest civic events. Against the theme Planet vs Plastic, the need for solutions to ensure the health of the planet could not be more urgent, especially when it comes to dealing with the proliferation of plastic,” says FSA’s Dr Ronald Heath, adding that farmed trees have the unique potential as the starting block for countless materials.

A host of fossil-fuel derived, energy-heavy materials can be substituted with wood-based derivatives such as timber in place of steel and concrete, and specialised cellulose for textiles like viscose and rayon. Paper packaging is finding its way back onto supermarket shelves as brand owners make the switch from plastic. Cellulose and nanocellulose can be used as food additives, functioning as thickening agents, stabilisers or emulsifiers, providing a natural alternative to synthetic additives. Lignin, a by-product of papermaking, can be used as in agriculture, construction and for dust suppression.

“Our sector can even make polymers and chemicals out of wood. And, of course, wood and pulp provide the ingredients for everyday essentials like furniture and toilet paper,” notes Heath.

While wood holds promise in various industries due to its renewable nature, biodegradability and versatile properties, the key to a wood-based revolution is its sustainable, responsible production, the theme of FSA’s new video “What is responsible forestry?”

Across South Africa, from Limpopo and Mpumalanga, through KwaZulu-Natal, to the Eastern and Western Cape, there are 1.2 million hectares of commercial forestry plantations, more than 85% of which are certified as meeting the stringent environmental and social standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®). In addition, 40% of these plantations have international PEFC certification through the recently established Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme (SAFAS).

From these plantations, more than 15 million tonnes of wood and fibre are harvested annually and for every tree removed, another is planted in its place. This wood, grown using carbon dioxide (CO2), keeps carbon stored long after harvesting and transformation into timber for beautiful buildings, cellulose for high-end fashion, additives for food and pharmaceuticals, and bio-chemicals. One cubic metre of Eucalyptus wood removes around 880kg of CO2 from the air, storing around 240kg of carbon.

“South African forestry should be recognised as part of the solution for climate change, plastic pollution and rural unemployment. Wood is a renewable, low-carbon alternative to many of the drivers of climate change. Globally, forestry is considered an integral role player in a green economic recovery: certainly, this is the case in South Africa. It is time we promoted it as such, explaining what responsible forestry looks like and how it can be part of the solution to the environmental crises we currently face,” says Heath.

In an article by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, titled Time to realise the potential of sustainable wood for the planet, the authors make a strong argument for wood as a solution to climate change, believing wood can play a key role by substituting single use plastics such as drinking straws and food packaging as part of the global movement to end plastic pollution.

Responsible forestry goes way beyond the trees. As a rural industry in South Africa, forestry creates employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in some of the country’s most impoverished communities. Through social initiatives, it delivers education, health care, infrastructure and hunger eradication programmes.

Amid the forestry landscape, countless wetland, grassland and biodiversity conservation projects are underway in the 305 000 hectares of unplanted, natural areas within forestry landholdings. seeks to end plastics for the sake of human and planetary health, demanding a 60% reduction in the production of ALL plastics by 2040. According to a recent study in the journal Science Advances, around eight billion tonnes of plastic have been produced over the past six decades, 90.5% of which has not been recycled, explains Aidan Charron from

“Our reliance on plastics could be the biggest gamble in the story of human health in history. We are all ingesting and inhaling microplastics. They are everywhere. Are we just hoping they are safe, or is even the remotest possibility they might be toxic so terrifying that we can’t contemplate it?” asks Kathleen Rogers, president of


More red tape, more taxes, more climate challenges, more opportunities for forestry …

Warming stripes graphic depicting annual mean global temperatures (1850-2018, from World Meteorological Organization data), produced for the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) provisional State of the Climate report. Image © Wikimedia Commons

“We are already in trouble … climate change will just make it worse.” These sobering words from Prof Eugene Cloete, microbiologist, water expert and recently-retired Vice Rector Research & Innovation at Stellenbosch University, set the tone for the opening of the Forestry & Climate Symposium held at the Department of Forest & Wood Science at Stellenbosch University in October.

Prof Cloete said that urbanisation across the world is continuing at an unsustainable rate, outstripping our capacity to provide the essential infrastructure. Pollution and poverty are on the rise. He says the world can support 1.2 billion people – not the 8 billion people we have now.

“We are exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet by 25%,” he said.

One of the consequences of this scenario is that the migration of people is accelerating. “It’s a natural phenomenon – people move to where there are more available resources,” he said.

But this only creates more problems. Borders are closing, nationalism is on the rise, social instability is increasing.

It’s an “ecological principle”. Increasing competition for resources leads to war.

We have to drastically reduce our consumption to get a shot at surviving, says the Prof. That’s what Covid did – it pushed us back into the carrying capacity of our planet, but it’s not sustainable.

He says that the ecosystem regulates the carrying capacity of the world. He predicts that there will be a shortage of water going forward, and we will have to re-look at how we manage this precious resource.

We also need to develop clean energy for the future. “Technology alone is not the solution – behaviour change is necessary.”

“We are on a non-sustainable path that could lead to disaster and even extinction. This is either our last century – or the century that marks a big change in our behaviour to ensure our future.”

Forestry perspective
Executive Director of Forestry South Africa, Mike Peter, provided some context on where the forestry industry stands in relation to climate change.

He said climate adaption at a business level is essential. The climate in regions where we grow trees in South Africa is already changing, and stakeholders are planting different species that are better adapted to the climate reality, he said.

The Carbon Tax has its origin in the non-binding Kyoto protocol of 1997, then in 2013 came the rise of RED and RED+ following the realisation of the impact of deforestation, but RED was not a “silver bullet” that would stop the build-up of emissions in the atmosphere. You can’t have a RED+ project in an area where we would have established forests anyway.

Then at COP 15 the then SA President Zuma committed South Africa to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020, and 40% by 2050. Why did he make this commitment? Because he was pro a nuclear build that would have netted him and his cronies millions, said Mike.

Then our government proposes a carbon tax, but they wouldn’t open up the market for renewable energy. It took President Cyril Ramaphosa until 2022 to open up the playing field for the generation of renewable energy at scale.

The carbon tax came into effect in 2020 – in the middle of a pandemic! Land-based sectors like forestry and agriculture were granted five years’ grace and will have to commence paying the carbon tax in 2025.

Mike said that the forestry sector is a very small emitter of greenhouse gases, and anyway it would cost the government more to collect the tax than the carbon tax revenue would be worth.

“We are locking up CO2 in our plantations. We want government to accept that biomass is carbon neutral. We don’t want plantations to be regarded as a carbon sink. We are carbon scrubbers,” he concluded.

Carbon tax is coming
However forestry companies that are involved in manufacturing are already reporting their emissions and paying carbon taxes. Jacob Crous of Sappi provided some insights into the complexities of carbon accounting and the challenges it brings. This is something that all businesses engaged in forestry work – including growers and contractors – will have to come to terms with after 2025.

SA signed the Paris Agreement (COP15) which committed the country to mandatory reporting of GHG emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The relevant legislation governing the reporting of emissions and carbon tax inside South Africa are the Air Quality Act 39 of 2004, and the Carbon Tax Act 15 of 2019.

Forestry companies will have to take into account all emissions and removals, above ground, below ground and in harvested wood products. They will have to calculate forest carbon pools vs carbon flows and the annual change in mass balance.

Agriculture and Forestry Emissions and Removals / Land use / Land use change. Graphic Courtesy of the IPCC 2006 report, Volume 4, Chapter 1.

By way of example, Sappi’s Scope 1 GHG emissions in 2021 (cradle to mill gate) excluding biogenic C emissions/removals were made up as follows:-

Transport – 19.8%
Harvesting – 15.1%
Fire (non CO2) Harvest residue – 24.7%
Non CO2 residue decomposition – 16.7%
Land use change – 9.8%
Fire (non-CO2) grassland – 8.1%
Fire protection – 0.2%
Management – 1.5%
Roading 1.9%
Establishment – 1.4%

Some useful pointers from Jacob:-

• Change in carbon stocks is calculated as the difference between the starting stock and ending stock.
• The actual carbon stocks (storage in tree crops) are not taken into consideration - only the change.
• Managed land proxy: all emissions from any management action must be reported (harvest residue decomposition, natural disturbance losses, management of conservation areas) – baseline natural emission from grassland burning is not recognised.
• Natural disturbance losses reduce standing carbon stocks, and add to non-CO2 emissions.
• Carbon is deemed to be emitted to the atmosphere when trees are harvested.
• Conversion from forest land to grassland (delineation) results in large carbon losses as CO2 loss also included in land use change (not measured against original natural vegetation).
• Land use change removals normally discounted over 20 years.
• Corporate accounting: obtain Scope 3 emissions/removals from external suppliers (upstream) and products (downstream).
• Adapt management systems to facilitate GHG reporting.
• Standardise accounting across the industry.

According to Jacob, the ‘rule of thumb’ is that around 90% of the carbon stored in wood as it enters the mill gate is the positive carbon balance after taking into account the emissions generated through the planting, tending, harvesting and transporting of the logs to the mill. This puts forestry squarely on the front foot in the climate debate and creates a world of opportunities going forward.

However the calculation for processed products like packaging, fabrics or bio-plastics gets a lot more complicated.

Value of woody biomass
Johann Gorgens, Professor in Chemical Engineering at SU, said that woody biomass will become way more valuable going forward. This creates a new paradigm for growth, global investments. He said every plastic produced by fossil fuels can be produced from bio-based sources.

“Sustainable carbon will become a scarce commodity in future.”

According to Associate Professor Ben du Toit, preliminary studies show that the carbon content of soils usually increases after commercial afforestation of grasslands. Minimum tillage and below-ground carbon allocation in trees appear to contribute to this result.

Forestry consultant Martin Herbert provided info on how York Timbers are adapting to climate change by breeding trees better suited to a warming climate for their pine plantations along the Mpumalanga escarpment. He said back in the 1970s the climate in the region was significantly cooler, and warmer temperatures are already a reality. “It’s a rapidly moving situation, and the temperature change is evident throughout the seasons.”

He said when it became evident that Pinus patula wasn’t thriving, York started exploring different pine species and hybrids that would be better suited to the changing climatic conditions.

In 1975, MAT on the escarpment was 16.820 C. In 2020 it was 18.080 C. In 2050 it is projected to be in the region of 19.360 C.

In order to be prepared for the changing climate, he said tree breeders need to know 15 or 20 years in advance what the climate will be doing. “It’s not just temperature – it’s a whole spectrum of climatic conditions,” he said.

System change and behaviour change are more necessary than ever. “We are on a non-sustainable path that could lead to disaster and even extinction," says microbiologist Prof Eugene Cloete. Image © Ivan Radic / Wikimedia Commons.

Ecological networks
Rene Gaigher of the Mondi Ecological Networks Programme provided useful insights into the benefits of incorporating ecological networks into plantations. She said these networks of unplanted, natural conservation areas should link areas of high biodiversity such as wetlands, grasslands and natural forest across the landscape.

She said a mosaic of ecological networks are essential to develop resilient ecosystems and are an effective mitigation measure against climate change. These networks allow species to move and are critical for their survival.

The key principle is to conserve large amounts of high-quality habitat that is functionally connected across the landscape.

Also of importance – create artificial ponds or dams (they support 75% of aquatic beetle, bug and dragonfly species found in natural ponds). Ponds increase population resilience against drought.

Grazing and fire regimes that mimic natural conditions are best for biodiversity – mosaic burning and grazing patterns are ideal. Invasive alien plant control helps to conserve ecosystem functioning.

Complex areas support significantly higher plant and anthropod diversity (i.e. areas with complex topography, elevation, different vegetation types etc). Narrow unplanted corridors, while not ideal, have value as movement conduits that increase connectivity in the landscape.

Wood buildings vs concrete & steel
According to Brand Wessels, Associate Professor in the Department of Forest & Wood Science at SU, using wood building materials instead of energy intensive bricks, concrete and steel, can make a massive contribution to a reduction of carbon emissions. This creates a great opportunity for the forestry industry to collaborate with stakeholders to promote the construction of wooden buildings and provide the raw material resources.

Buildings are currently responsible for the biggest slice of energy-related carbon emissions at 39%. By comparison industry is responsible for 31% and transport 23%.

Considering that demand for saw timber in South Africa is already outstripping the supply, it is critical that plantation resources are maximised in order to support the construction of ‘green’ buildings.

Carbon 0 – money talks
Prof Guy Midgley, Acting Director of the School fort Climate Studies, provided a different perspective on the science of climate change and forestry.

For the last 450 000 years, the world was a much colder place than it is now, he said. Trees almost become extinct in cold periods, because trees need carbon to grow. In the ice age trees and forests were carbon-starved.

As we gradually increase C02 we push the planet back to more forests, it becomes more tree-friendly.

There is a lack of research around carbon pools and carbon flows – particularly in Africa, he said. We need to know more about how different African landscapes sequester carbon, how Eucalyptus plantations affect the carbon balance etc.

“We don’t have the research – we have not invested,” said the Prof.

“We need to get to carbon 0 by the end of the century – it’s a very difficult thing to do.”

He demonstrated a fascinating climate solutions simulator developed by a group of leading scientists that allows users to explore the impact of key policies on future climate scenarios. The En-Roads Climate Solutions Simulator is freely available on the internet at

It comes up with some surprising results.

On our current trajectory the world’s average temperature will increase by 3.60 C by 2100. That will make the world a much more difficult place to live in … for humans.

If we could stop deforestation completely throughout the world and plant 3 trillion trees, it would only make a miniscule difference to this global warming trajectory, reducing the projected temperature increase by a mere - .0110 C by 2100.

Clearly this alone is not enough to make a significant impact. What is required are major changes in policy and consumption patterns that are unlikely to be made voluntarily.

However if you increase the carbon tax price on the dashboard, there is a big step change in the projected temperature increase. Money obviously talks the loudest!

“Our single most effective tool (to reduce harmful emissions and mitigate climate change) is to make carbon taxes very high,” said the Prof.

This would force through the changes required to reduce the projected temperature increase by -2.60 C by 2100.

“If we don’t succeed we condemn our children to a much worse future.”

He said that centralised political and economic power is built around centralised energy production, so regionalising energy production with renewables would break centralised power blocks, raising the possibility that we could create a different, more sustainable, world.