Time to build with timber

Sawn timber, a locally grown, sustainable resource, provides the raw material for the construction of timber frame buildings using cutting edge cross-laminated-timber technology to lock in carbon and minimise environmental impacts.

How engineered wood can decarbonise the South African built environment …
by Roy Southey, Executive Director, Sawmilling South Africa

Our planet is faced with both an environmental crisis and housing crisis. There is, however, a sector that is overlooked as a viable, renewable and long-term solution to climate change and urbanisation.

Having recently attended the annual Wood Conference in Cape Town, I was inspired to hear and see how timber is being used successfully in the built environment, not just in the northern hemisphere but also on home soil. From modern homes in an off-the-grid community in Mogale City to a learning centre in the Drakensberg, from a new home in Knysna or a rooftop extension to a Johannesburg home to the Green Point Education dome in Cape Town.

At the mention of wood, your mind’s eye might only be able to conjure an image of a log cabin or “wendy house”, or perhaps a roof truss or timber flooring. It’s unlikely that you imagined a multi-storey building made from cross laminated timber (CLT), a type of engineered wood for mass timber construction.

You’re forgiven, considering that less than 1% of new South African houses use timber as the primary construction material. By comparison, some 90% of new houses in New Zealand are made of timber.

As a sector trying to promote the adoption of mass timber, we are faced with a long-held belief that brick-and-mortar is the only way to build homes, schools and clinics. There are many misconceptions, not least of which being strength, durability, fire safety, and cost. Many people view wood as rudimentary or weak.

Mass timber uses technological advancements to engineer wood to have a stronger strength-to-weight ratio. In the case of CLT, thin layers of timber are laid crossways before being bonded and compressed together.

It’s been said that wood isn’t manufactured, it grows. From a South African perspective, the wood is sourced from sustainably managed tree plantations.

Pine timber grown by AC Whitcher in the Western Cape … it’s time has come.

The forest products sector is the only one to have the trifecta of green solutions when it comes to the carbon sequestration by trees in managed forests, carbon storage in its products and the substitution of carbon-intensive materials with wood-based products.

The construction sector accounts for 35-40% of global energy related CO2 emissions, with a large proportion (embodied emissions) attributable to the extraction, processing and energy-intensive manufacturing of building products. The other main source is operational emissions from heating, cooling and power generation.

Timber boasts a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to traditional building materials like concrete and steel. Timber also maintains a carbon-negative status throughout its lifecycle, from initial production to disposal, and it sequesters more carbon than it emits during processing and installation.

Our colleagues at the Stellenbosch University, Prof Brand Wessels and Dr Philip Crafford have published various pieces of research, highlighting the advantages of increased timber use in South Africa. Basic modelling analyses show that if the market share of wood-based buildings increases to 20% of new constructions, the embodied energy and global warming potential of the residential building sector could decrease by 4.9%.

As our population and economic migration increases, there is an urgent need to change how we build high density and single family housing, quickly, cost-effectively and sustainably.

Human friendly, planet friendly, timber is the ideal building material of the past and the future.

There is a climate, economic and even social case for timber, and a significant opportunity for innovation, localisation and employment creation. Several industry players, architects, construction engineers and producers are focused on making engineered wood more accessible to the local market. With this comes the need for upskilling or reskilling, business growth and employment opportunities.

Wood lends itself well to modern, modular and off-site methods of construction, with improved efficiency and performance. Single and multi-storey buildings are prefabricated off-site, allowing for quicker on-site assembly, less journeys to and from site (and the associated carbon emissions), and minimised disruption, dust and noise.

Biased towards tried-and-tested steel and concrete, the public and private sector is reluctant to drive the use of timber in the built environment through procurement policies.

Through initiatives such as the Forestry Master Plan, partnerships with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition and forward-thinking academia, we want to shift the needle in favour of using locally grown and processed timber.

Both the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University have a strong wood science focus, and helping to educate a new generation of architects and construction engineers.

Dr Schalk Grobbelaar, senior lecturer and chairperson of the York Timbers Chair in Wood Structural Engineering in University of Pretoria’s Department of Engineering & Technology Management, is a champion for our cause. He believes that a design-led approach is crucial to successful risk management where timber solutions are used, while also exposing people to possibilities that timber brings.

Dr Grobbelaar’s team has been focusing on traditional timber frame construction combined with modern CNC machined plywood/OSB modular construction.

Prof Wessels and Dr Crafford have also developed The Wood App, a platform that offers architects, builders and designers with access to a host of CPD accredited courses on local wood standards, materials and best practice.

The sawmilling sector, while small in comparison to other industrial sectors, supplies sawn timber and other products for various applications, from structural timber to moulded and machined products for decking, flooring and ceilings. Many of these sawmills operate in rural or peri-urban areas, providing much-needed employment to thousands.

The uptake of timber represents a massive opportunity for our country and our planet. It’s time to trust in timber.

THE CLIMATE CRUNCH

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 www.enroads.org.

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.

Massive potential for drones in forestry

From data collection on the health of trees to monitoring plantation, road and river crossing conditions on the ground or doing pre-plant sprays, drones are the new ‘go-to’ technology that is busy transforming the way foresters go about their daily business. This Q and A with Simon Ackerman of the Forest Operations Research unit at the Department of Forest and Wood Science, Stellenbosch University, focuses on the potential for drones to provide radically new data driven solutions for forestry…

What is the buzz around drones?

SA: To some, drones are seen as a bit of a gimmick, or an annoyance with potential for contravening just about every clause in the POPI act. However, both research and industry are proving that drones truly represent an amazing new technology with the potential to produce radically new data driven solutions in land-use applications such as agriculture, forestry and conservation.

How can awareness of the apparent opportunities for using drones be improved?

SA: The Department of Science and Technology, through the Forest Sector Innovation Fund, awarded a project for the promotion and development of Precision Forestry Tools to improve the efficiency of forest operations in South Africa. Part of this funding was in support of a series of workshops in the forest sector. The Department of Forest and Wood Science at Stellenbosch University sees a need for the forest sector to take a more proactive role in ensuring a sustainable adoption and roll-out of drone-based sampling methods and services. This includes capacity building amongst our students, drone operators, and industry players alike. Awareness of this can be generated through articles, social media, and the road trip we embarked on. An increased use of drones is obviously going to benefit both research and practice.

What were some of the main goals of this ‘campaign’?

SA: The main goals of the project, and the workshops, were to:
• Upskill the forestry industry in the application and use of tools to measure and manage our resources through the use of UAVs, including the advanced processing of these data. This is being done partly through postgraduate student projects and industry workshops
• Complement existing and develop new forms of data and data sets for use in our industry
• Create the links through academia and industry to skills both locally and through our cooperation partners abroad who have adopted drone based data in forest research to a far greater degree than we have.

How was this implemented practically?

SA: The Forest Operations group (FOR) arranged a series of workshops on ‘Drones in Forestry’ targeted at both established drone operators who needed to know more about the specifics of working in the forest sector, as well as forestry management and research staff who were interested in knowing more about potential applications, potential outputs, or just in exchanging experiences.

Why push for an increased use of drones in forestry?

SA: Drones are incredibly convenient tools for the collection of data in forestry. Plantation forests are typically between 3 000-10 000 ha, and have individual management units of 10-30 ha which need to be sampled for survival, health, growth and stocking densities more or less throughout their 6 to 25 year rotation. This is normally done on foot or through remote sensing, typically with LiDAR which has its benefits, but has a lower temporal and spatial resolution. Methods for analysing drone based data are rapidly evolving within and between research environments around the globe, and these developments provide a rich basis for research, and not least, research publications. We see lots of opportunities here, both for our industries and for ourselves, especially given that some of the species that we use have quite different attributes to those grown in Europe or North America where a lot of the research is currently being done.

What are the main drone payloads or sensor technologies of relevance?

SA: For a large part, drones carrying RGB sensors (i.e. normal cameras) are more than sufficient for the purpose of forest measurement. Through specialised software that creates stereopsis through a process known as structure-from-motion (SfM), a series of RGB images with sufficient overlap can be processed into a 3D point cloud. The point cloud is used in creating a 3D surface or digital surface model (DSM). Even consumer grade drones such as the DJI Mavic 2 with integrated camera easily meets or exceeds the needs for small area surveys in very high resolution.

A second commonly used payload is a multispectral or hyperspectral camera. A lot of people would know that these have been used for many years in agricultural settings, as the wavelengths captured in multispectral imagery can be used both in distinguishing between plant species (e.g. crop and weed), indicate the health of the crop (water stress, nutrient deficiency) or between live and dead or dying biomass, e.g. in evaluating effectiveness of a herbicide treatment.

Physical direct measurement through laser scanning (LiDAR, laser distance and ranging), using drone borne scanners, which was once prohibitively expensive for forestry applications, is becoming economically feasible and the applications are expanding accordingly. The benefit of LiDAR over photogrammetry based 3D models is that the LiDAR pulses are able to penetrate any gaps in the tree canopy and provide information from lower down on the stem or from the ground, which is seldom discernible in RGB data. Also, at the level of detail we can work with using drone data, it is quite essential to have a high resolution terrain model as well, and that can really only be measured with LiDAR.

Drones are also widely used in providing services, such as aerial herbicide or pesticide applications, something that is more well known in agriculture / viticulture. A couple of these have been well covered in the SA Forestry Magazine. Interestingly, they show a strong competitive advantage over tractor borne or manually applied chemicals when it comes to being able to apply the dosage precisely and in a timely way, obviously also providing access when trees get beyond a certain practically reachable height.

How do drones fit in with other platforms used for remote and proximal sensing?

SA: Very well actually. Drone based data is mostly sampled in nadir, i.e. vertically, and is therefore 100% complementary to fixed-wing aircraft platforms (LiDAR and imagery) and satellite based data (imagery and radar). Each have an important role to play and will continue to do so. High resolution drone imagery can be used in calibrating the interpretation of imagery from the other platforms. Aircraft can cover large areas far more economically than drones can, but are not ideal for smaller areas or specific sites, while satellites offer data with a high temporal frequency (daily) but at a lower resolution. So, ideally, one will always be working with a portfolio of data from different platforms.

Can anyone fly a drone?

SA: Actually flying the drone is the least of the challenges. Usually a survey flight is pre-programmed on a tablet in the planning office, and flown without human intervention. One does however need to have the skills to step in if something unexpected happens, and that does happen more often than not. In South Africa, the use of drones in a commercial setting is strongly regulated by the civil aviation authorities (CAA). A commercial operator is defined as anyone that receives any sort of remuneration for the work, whether in the form of a bottle of wine or even co-authorship of a research paper. We were fortunate to have Robert Britz of DroneX join our series of workshops and give a very thorough run-through of the regulations, requirements and obligations, tailor-made for our industry.

What do you think about these regulations that are obviously aimed at the public and the protection of private property?

SA: It’s a bit of a paradox that here in our country, one can get a truck licence for R 3 000 and drive a 45 ton truck down a crowded main road at the end of an almost unlimited shift, while it costs ten times that (R 30 000) to get a licence to fly a 950 gram drone in a remote forest area, and one must also pass a medical exam. There’s some room for lobby work here. At FOR, we are planning to engage the industry in jointly applying to CAA for a couple of exceptions to the current regulations. We can also do more in regulating our own operators. Of course uncontrolled altitude is a threat to aviation, but this can be restricted in the software, and in cases where the fire bombers are working within the 100 m envelope, we as an industry should really take responsibility in developing our own protocols and regulations. If we are going to exploit this new highly valuable data source, we really need every forester to have a drone in their bakkie. They have to be able to fly a compartment at short notice to document e.g. fire damage, windfall, insect or pathogen attack, harvesting or thinning progress, amount of timber on the landing, or the condition of a road or stream crossing. There is no question that the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Until then, we need to train licensed operators on the peculiarities of forests and forestry, and pay them to occasionally come by and fly a survey flight.

Is it possible to bring the analysis of drone data into the forestry curriculum?

SA: Our students will definitely need to know more about sequencing and planning data capturing campaigns, analysing the data and interpreting the results rather than actually flying a drone. They should of course not be deprived of the fun part of flying drones, but certainly it is the interpretation that is the crux. The forestry education at Stellenbosch does already include a good component of the analysis of remotely sensed data, and other departments offer courses on digital photogrammetry, image analysis, geomatics etc., so it is really more a question of deciding to enhance these elements in the curriculum.

What role will the Department of Forest and Wood Science be playing with regard to ‘Drones in Forestry’ in the next 5 or so years?

SA: There is obviously an important role to play in ensuring that our graduates are equipped to embrace the data coming from drone acquisitions, just as they are for other data sources today. This process can be short circuited somewhat through promoting postgraduate projects using drone data in all aspects of forestry already today, and we are doing that. The role of the department will hopefully be one of provisioning industry research by supplying young ‘experts’ into the value chain. We hope that in five years time, our graduates will be just as at home with using drones and drone data, as they are with a dbh calliper today!

*First published in SA Forestry Annual, 2021

Vergelegen estate tests enviro-friendly gum poles

Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West is testing the use of untreated, environment friendly poles in its vineyards.

The untreated poles have been installed in two blocks of vineyards, extending over 3,55ha. These are planted with sauvignon blanc and semillon grapes, says Vergelegen viticulturist Rudolf Kriel. The remaining four blocks, planted in 2020, have steel poles in one block, and normal treated pine poles in the remainder.

Green Cape Timbers, which is based at neighbouring Lourensford wine farm, manufactured and supplied the environmentally-friendly poles.

Green Cape Timbers owner Sean McGaffin says he became interested in environmentally-friendly timbers while exporting wood to the Netherlands. Dutch authorities fit wooden panels to the sides of canals and dykes, and this wood must be correctly certified as they do not allow treated timbers in their waterways.

The poles installed at Vergelegen are sourced from sugar gum, the traditional farm gum tree (E. cladocalyx) and tuart (E. gomphocephala). These eucalyptus species are commonly found on Western Cape farms as they are well-adapted, all-purpose trees. They also appeal to bee-keepers as they provide a reliable source of pollen and sugar-rich nectar.

The poles are produced by felling the trees and, keeping the bark on, leaving them to release moisture slowly. The exterior sap-containing wood is then peeled off, and the eucalyptus is cross-cut to the required length.

McGaffin says the benefits of untreated eucalyptus poles include:
• Enviro-friendly manufacture: The poles are not treated with wood preservatives, which require quantities of water and chemicals to produce.
• Chemical-free: The untreated poles are free of chemicals that could leach into the soil. Poles used outdoors are usually impregnated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) or creosote. CCA is a wood preservative containing chromium, copper and arsenic compounds. Creosote is distilled from various tars and the pyrolysis (decomposition due to high temperatures) of plant-derived materials such as wood and fossil fuel.
• Cheaper costs: Due to strength capabilities, the cost of the untreated eucalyptus poles can be considerably cheaper than treated poles sourced from commercial retail outlets.
• Community responsibility: Many treated, discarded poles are used as wood fuel for cooking in under-resourced communities. This has health concerns given that they contain heavy metals and arsenic.

“There is a general perception amongst South Africans that all eucalypt tree species in the country are aggressive, alien invasives,” says McGaffin. “This perception has been further fuelled by drought concerns and the blanket understanding that ‘gum trees’ use extensive amounts of underground water resources. In fact this is not the case as they use no more than another tree per biomass size.”

There are over 180 Eucalyptus species in South Africa, which means there are large variations in the levels of invasiveness, durability and strength, he says.

Stellenbosch University research has shown that some Eucalyptus trees have four to five times the strength of treated pine poles, adds McGaffin. Thus costs could be lowered by manufacturing thinner Eucalyptus poles. Given that the poles are heavy, they could be supplied with holes already drilled for nails, while tapering them at the tips would enable easier planting. The peeled bark could also be sold as mulch.

“Vergelegen is dedicated to sustainability and has collaborated with research institutions and specialist suppliers of environmental products and services over several decades,” commented Leslie Naidoo, Vergelegen’s Commercial and Risk Manager. “We will monitor the condition of the untreated poles and any impact on the vineyards, and look forward to sharing the findings in due course.”

Vergelegen has consistently been recognised for its environmental initiatives. The estate was crowned the first Biodiversity and Wine Initiative Champion in 2005, and completed South Africa’s largest privately funded alien vegetation clearing project in 2018. This programme restored 2 200 hectares of vegetation on the 321-year-old estate, while supporting job creation and skills development in local communities.

Vergelegen also received the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa 2019 corporate award in 2019, recognising its sustained commitment to environmental initiatives. The estate won two awards in the 2022 Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Awards, for its sustainable wine tourism experiences, land also landscape and architecture.

Benefits of eucalypts
Timber intended for outdoor use is usually treated to protect it from microbes and insects. Thick sap wood, which does not have natural good durability and strength properties, is chosen because it allows the required chemical penetration. Traditionally in South Africa, Eucalyptus grown for pole material has also been treated with CCA or creosote which requires a thick sap wood in order to get the required chemical penetration. In fact, the chemical treatment of many Eucalyptus species is unnecessary because of their natural durability. This has prejudiced species such as E. cloeziana that has thinner sap wood and better durability.

A recent study by Wessels et al (2016) into the viability of fast-growing tree species in the dry West Coast region of the Cape identified the four most promising genotypes by volume growth as E. grandis, E. camaldulensis, E. gomphocephala and E. cladocalyx. Source: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00107-016-1016-3.

Green Cape Timbers, which forms part of a consortium known as Green Cape Forestry, is investigating the potential of not only supplying untreated gum poles, but also offering a turnkey service to plant and manage Eucalyptus forests on behalf of landowners.

Eucalyptus trees play an important role in the agricultural sector. The trees bloom in different seasons and are important source of nectar and pollen for bees. Bees are essential for pollination of the Western Cape's fruit industry. Currently, the bee population is suppressed by insecticides and is attacked by pests and diseases. According to SANBI (South African Biodiversity Institute), the value of insect pollination is more than R10.3 billion per year in South Africa.

The fruit industry in the Western Cape needs poles for orchards to ensure optimum production per hectare. It is estimated that 100,000m3 of poles are treated per year in the Western Cape, of which about 60% is destined for the fruit industry. The expected durability of a pole in the industry is about 25 years i.e., a durability Class 1 product. To date, chemically treated poles have been used to create this lifetime expectation. Several Eucalyptus trees have a natural durability by removing the sapwood. Eucalyptus cladocalyx is one such species.

Exotic trees were first planted because indigenous forests were insufficient for timber supplies and there was a risk that indigenous forests would be over-exploited. The first eucalyptus species planted widely in South Africa was the E. globulus, the “blue gum”. It came via an Indian Ocean network, from Australia to Mauritius to the Cape Colony, probably in 1828. Unfortunately the plantings were not managed, and an environmental management problem began to occur. Green Cape Forestry Consortium’s objective is to motivate new plantings that are managed and meet responsible forestry standards. This would help remove unwanted Eucalyptus stands and improve the Western Cape's biodiversity status.

International collaboration boosts forestry education

Five South African universities have partnered with local and international stakeholders to introduce cutting edge, climate-smart forestry and entrepreneurship to their forestry courses. Norman Dlamini of Forestry South Africa (FSA) explains the aims and objectives of the programme, known as FOREST21:-

What is FOREST21?
FOREST21 is a collaborative project between South Africa, Finland and Norway titled “the 21st Century Climate-Smart Forestry Education for Livelihoods and Sustainability in South Africa”. The FOREST21 initiative is a capacity-building project in the area of higher education, involving the five South African higher education institutes offering forestry qualifications as well as two universities in Finland and one in Norway. The FOREST21 initiative has three core pillars: climate-smart forestry, forestry entrepreneurship and student-centred teaching methods.

The project is generously co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union to the tune of € 999, 965.00 and will be officially launched on 14 April 2021, although the logistical aspect of the project started in mid-January.

Who is involved?
The project was conceptualised by FSA in a bid to improve the economic and environmental contribution of the industry to South Africa’s wellbeing. FSA played a coordinating role in packaging the proposal. There are eight core FOREST21 partners: Aalto University, Fort Cox Agriculture and Forestry Training Institute, Häme University of Applied Sciences, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Nelson Mandela University, Stellenbosch University, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Venda. These work alongside FSA and several associate partners, including education authorities in South Africa like the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation (DHESI), Council for Higher Education (CHE), South Africa Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education Authority (FP&M SETA); other key universities in the area of climate change - Witwatersrand University (WITS), University of Pretoria (UP), University of Mpumalanga (UMP) - and key stakeholders, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Forests Industry in South Africa, Finland and Norway and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).

Why is an international approach so vital?
An international approach offers the opportunity of establishing partnerships and friendships that go beyond the remit of the original programme and will almost certainly outlive the three-year lifespan of FOREST21. There is also the co-generation of knowledge, the value of which should never be underestimated. The FOREST21 European partners are recognised as leaders in their field, bringing these trend leaders to assist South African higher education institutions to build local capacity in these areas of interest will improve the global competitiveness of the South African forestry industry. This willingness of our international collaborators to offer their expertise to this programme and assist South African HEI’s reform their curriculum will benefit South African learners for generations to come.

We must not forget the forestry landscape in South Africa covers five very diverse provinces and this is represented by the five South Africa higher education institutions spanning Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. In many ways, connecting that talent found within each of these institutions is very much like an international experience in itself.

The benefits from this international approach are already materialising, from the conception of this project in 2019 and the flurry of emails, digital meetings (before they became mandatory) and telephone calls with the core partners that proceeded; we have already learnt a lot from one another and the experience to date has been nothing but extremely positive. Since the announcement in July 2020 that funding was granted, knowledge transfer has increased exponentially and the network has widened with new associate partners coming on board in November 2020. All these benefits have been realised before the project officially launched, so I am incredibly excited to see what the future has in store.

What is hoped to be achieved?
The overarching project aim is to improve the forestry curriculum offered in all five institutions of higher education offering forestry programmes in South Africa.

FOREST21 will mainstream important concepts like the implementation of climate-smart forestry along the value chain while championing entrepreneurial innovativeness in forestry education. Through a countrywide curricula reform of forestry education at higher education institutions the FOREST21 project looks to equip graduates with problem-solving skills, an entrepreneurial mindset and climate-smart thinking. While curriculum improvement will not be uniform through all the universities, each participating university will choose what to implement from the pool of generated knowledge and package it to suit their local context.

FOREST21 also seeks to improve interactions amongst South Africa’s universities, as well as between them and the wider forestry industry, and ultimately promote international partnerships that will help shape the future of South African forestry.

Why is it important that we teach entrepreneurship at university?
Like in many other African countries, and indeed around the world, the education system in South Africa traditionally teaches us to become better workers, but not necessarily creators of job opportunities and certainly not creators of new products and services that could solve the challenges humanity currently faces.

As more people add their voice to the need for educational reform at higher education institutions, we can no longer ignore their point that traditional educational systems were designed to produce glorified labourers, who cannot help themselves if no one employs them. While this might sound very harsh, especially to anyone who had to work incredibly hard to earn their qualification, the comment is supported by the ever-increasing number of struggling, unemployed university graduates in South Africa year after year – rich in many years of expensive university education, but financially broken.

For many, entrepreneurship seems to offer a solution to South Africa’s triple ills of poverty, unemployment and inequality. As such, it is a solution that needs to be thoroughly investigated and hopefully implemented. Closer to home, the forestry industry needs graduates that are innovative to solve the real-work challenges in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. This was highlighted in a study by Magaga and Scholes (2019) that found the forestry industry in need of graduates that will be innovative, proactive, and have a reasonable level of autonomy and competitive aggressiveness to take the industry a step further. All this is aligned to cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among the graduates while they are still training. On a personal note, I believe entrepreneurship training should start earlier in the schooling system but ensuring this is the case at a university level is a good start.

What is climate-smart forestry?
The time to stand together, globally, to respond to the threat posed by climate change is now – it is our responsibility, not just to our children and future generations of their children who will inherit the earth one day from us, but to every living organism that inhabits the earth.

The role of forestry in this is becoming ever more prominent and as such, climate-smart forestry has never been more relevant. Climate-Smart Forestry is a targeted approach to increase the climate benefits from forests and the Forest Sector, in a way that creates synergies with other needs related to forests. The definition may sound complex but it can be simplified to the Sector’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase its efforts mitigating against climate change.

In many ways, South African forestry is ahead of the game having embraced sustainable forest management many years ago. Today, over 80% of plantation forestry area in the country has been certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) as sustainably produced timber, something as a country we should take pride in. As a sustainable, renewable industry that actively sequestrates carbon, the sector offers numerous potential solutions to climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and is already seen as having a central role in South Africa’s green economic recovery and circular economy.

How will the students benefit?
There are several ways students will benefit, both immediately and in the future. Immediate benefits will see 80 students, ten from each of the participating universities, selected to be part of this initiative. These students will work as international teams of learners, contributing and testing the knowledge generated as the new curricula are developed. They will also be involved in solving real-life problems experienced by the Forestry Industry, which will require teamwork and international collaboration. Perhaps, most excitingly for those involved, they will participate in the activities hosted by each of the partnering universities. This will see students globe hop from a curriculum development workshop in Evenstad, Norway to two pedagogical workshops in South Africa, one in Thohoyandou and the other in George. Then there is a climate-smart workshop in Hämeenlinna, Finland, followed by a forestry entrepreneurship workshop in Helsinki, Finland, before the closing workshop in Pretoria, South Africa. While COVID requirements are in the back of everyone’s mind and plans are being made, for now only the initial kick-off next week planned for Stellenbosch has had to be digital.

For the students involved, this is a huge opportunity affording them unrivalled networking experiences, as well as a host of transferable skills as they develop the various aspects of entrepreneurship such as problem solving, innovativeness, proactiveness and competitive aggressiveness. They will be exposed to leaders in their field and knowledge gained from the frontiers of global forestry.

More importantly, they will make an immeasurable contribution to the improvement of curricula for the students that will follow them. The contribution of this class of students also extends to sharpening the skills of the academic staff in offering excellent student-centred teaching and learning that is customised to the local context. There is no doubt that upcoming students will benefit from this immeasurably, with the improved curriculum ensuring they are better equipped to respond to the challenges of climate change and other unforeseen events.

How will the industry benefit?
The forestry sector too will see both long- and short-term benefits of this project.

Short-term, during the duration of FOREST21, FSA members can host international teams of FOREST21 participants to solve real problems. Providing them with access to the collective wisdom of South African and international experts, lecturers and students, all intent on finding innovative, workable solutions.

In the medium to long-term, they can expect generations of forestry graduates ready to actively contribute to the world of work as a proactive, innovative, problem-solving asset to the industry. They will be able to co-create partnerships with higher education institutions that look to continue to strengthen the calibre of student graduating way beyond the three-year lifespan of the FOREST21 project.

The industry is already a major employer of those living in the rural communities that neighbour the forestry landscape. Working with newly qualified graduates with entrepreneurial skill sets, the Industry will be able to increase the impact it has in these communities.

How will South Africa benefit?
As a nation with a young population, we need to start seeing the youth of today as the leaders of tomorrow. They are the individuals who will take South Africa forward and dictate the nation our country becomes. When looking for future leaders, trendsetters, innovators and great minds of tomorrow, one of the first places to start is our country’s universities – it will be the students of today who will shape the South Africa of tomorrow.

The FOREST21 programme acknowledges this, seeking to ensure the students of today are given the correct entrepreneurial skill sets to face the global challenges of tomorrow (and today) like climate change. So while they are the major beneficiaries of the project, indirectly the whole country will benefit from tomorrow’s leaders being better equipped to face the challenges of today, tomorrow and in the future in a way that is both sustainable and ensures South Africa remains globally competitive.

Ultimately the hope is that FOREST21 interventions will increase employment opportunities for forestry graduates, as well as those graduating in other disciplines who adopt similar curriculum revisions upon the success of this initiative, thus aiding in the reduction of the current 32.5% unemployment rate. FOREST21 should help reduce the average age class of South African entrepreneurs, currently set at 45 - 54 years old according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, by introducing entrepreneurism as a feasible concept in the minds of the graduating youth. We also hope, that by providing graduates with the skill sets required for entrepreneurs we can improve the survival of new enterprises in South Africa beyond the seemingly unbreakable 42-month ceiling. Perhaps most importantly, FOREST21, and the graduates that result from it, will play a major role in South Africa’s response to climate changes and the mitigation strategies put forward.

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SA researchers push the innovation envelope

​Three South African researchers have made it to the global shortlist of the Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Awards.

The awards, launched in 2016 by the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA), aim to recognise, celebrate and promote innovations in the global forestry sector.

Justin Phillips and Hester Oosthuizen, both from the University of Pretoria, and Eddie Barnard from Stellenbosch University, go up against another 18 of their peers from around the world. The top three finalists will win cash prizes and get an opportunity to present their work at the ICFPA’s Global CEO Roundtable virtual discussion on 29 April.

Particle board from paper sludge
Eddie Barnard is exploring the commercial viability of using technical lignin (a by-product from the wood pulping phase in pulp or paper making) and pulp and paper sludge (rejected, degraded, and spilled fibres and water from the pulping and paper making processes) to make composite materials.

Lignin has binding properties, which when combined with sludge, could be used to make construction materials such as a replacement for particle board. The use of lignin together with pulp and paper sludge could replace components that would otherwise be produced from fossil-based resources, and reduce associated waste, greenhouse gas emissions and disposal costs.

Cattle dip for killing ticks 
Justin Phillips has looked at how starch and nano-cellulose can be used as a carrier material for pesticide application in the agricultural sector. The insoluble solid active ingredient in the pesticide attaches to the carrier, which is water-soluble and allows for safer and more efficient and safe controlled release of the pesticide, especially in aqueous environments such as animal dipping for tick prevention.

A substitute for petroleum-based plastics
Cellulose is uniquely positioned to substitute many petroleum-based plastics, however it cannot be melt-processed and dissolved using common organic solvents. This is why Hester Oosthuizen examined the efficacy of using choline chloride and ionic liquids, considered greener and less volatile, to make cellulose fluid enough to produce cellulose-based materials using existing polymer processing techniques.

“We are immensely proud of our finalists for making it this far, and demonstrating that South Africa can hold its own against the best in the world,” says Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). “As a sector we constantly look for ways to support young people with an interest in science and technology and are proud of the career opportunities our member companies can offer them.”

Wood – a renewable alternative to conventional materials
As a sustainably farmed resource that stores carbon, wood is increasingly being used not only in the built environment for houses and high-rises, but also for its cellulose, lignin and sugars. These elements all have a role in helping the world find renewable and low-carbon alternatives to the likes of plastic, chemicals, steel and concrete.

“Two key advantages that commercially farmed trees bring are their renewability and their carbon storage,” explains Molony. “The fact that trees are sustainably planted, harvested and replenished on the same land makes both wood and paper products renewable and efficient resources. For a low carbon future, it’s tremendously exciting – especially when we look at the kind of research our young scientists are producing.”

An international panel with connections to industry, academia and public policy has been assembled to judge the awards, including:
• Lyndall Bull, Forestry Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN)
• Barbara Tavora Jainchill, Programme Management Officer, Forest Affairs, with the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat
• Fernando L. Garcia Bertolucci, Executive Director of Technology and Innovation at Suzano S.A. and Member of IUFRO
• Professor Gil Garnier, Director of BioPRIA within the Department of Chemical Engineering at Monash University
• John Innes, Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at University of British Columbia.
The local round was adjudicated by Valeske Cloete (Mpact), Sanet Minnaar (Sappi) and Mike Nash, former head of PAMSA’s Process Research Unit and experienced chemical engineer.

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