By Ewald Rametsteiner, Deputy Director, Forestry Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

The world’s forests are vast carbon sinks and one of humanity’s greatest assets in the fight against climate change. It may therefore be counter-intuitive to imagine that cutting down trees and using wood-based products can help us in this same fight. But if the wood products come from sustainably managed forests, using them can do just that.

We could create a future in which cities are carbon neutral, acting as “second forests” for storing carbon.

A new publication released today for the International Day of Forests by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains how switching to wood-based products can help fight climate change and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Currently, around 75% of consumption is based on non-renewable natural resources. The extraction, transformation, use and disposal of these resources have serious consequences on the environment, in particular on the climate and biodiversity.

Wood, on the other hand, is a renewable material. It also stores carbon throughout its lifetime. For example, a wooden kitchen table keeps the carbon stored inside it safely away from the atmosphere.

Additionally, the use of wood-based products can help avoid or reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with products made from concrete, steel, plastic and synthetic fibers.

The construction sector – which accounts for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – is a good example where the use of wood can make a difference.

Wooden materials such as CLT have a low carbon footprint and are strong enough to build huge structures. The world’s tallest wooden building, Norway’s Mjøstårnet, is over 85 meters and 18 stories high. Wood buildings are also proven to improve people’s moods and increase productivity.

Countries take note:

  • Gabon is planning the country’s first cross-laminated timber building, which has the potential to remove around 1.5 million kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere – a weight equivalent to 36 Boeing 737-800s.
  • The Netherlands have announced their intention to build an entire suburb of Amsterdam out of wood.

Provided we replace the trees used in construction, we could create a future where cities become carbon neutral, acting as “second forests” for carbon storage.

Wood-based products also offer solutions in other fields, including textiles, food, cosmetics, biochemistry, bioplastics and medicine. Scientific innovations are pushing the limits of what we can do with wood and trees, from wound care to clear wood glass.

But there is a problem: the pressure on all natural resources is increasing, with growing demand for forest products in the construction, packaging and bioenergy sectors.

Forests cover 31% of the Earth’s land surface, or just over 4 billion hectares, but this immense natural heritage is not enough to meet the growing needs of the world’s population. Globally, forests continue to shrink, largely due to agricultural expansion.

To solve this problem, we urgently need to increase the forest area and promote more efficient and sustainable use of the forest. This means, among other things, ensuring that we plant more trees as we harvest, carefully considering the integrity of the ecosystem and protecting forests through sustainable management. We must step up the fight against deforestation and restore deforested and degraded lands, as required by the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. We need investments in the sustainable management and restoration of forests to improve the sustainable use of biodiversity and increase mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

This means supporting forest-related institutions and actors along value chains, from production to processing to consumer, so as to maintain and create jobs, value addition and incomes, and to benefit indigenous peoples, women and youth. And we should encourage the sustainable production and consumption of wood by recycling it, reducing waste and enabling the “cascade” use of wood products – reusing them as many times as possible before burning them to produce energy. Consumers can play their part by choosing forest products with certification and labeling attesting to their legal and sustainable origin.

The means to carry out concrete actions on these strategies will be at the center of the next UN report, The state of the world’s forestswhich will be launched in May at the XV World Forestry Congress, the world’s largest gathering of forestry experts and stakeholders interested in forestry.

We must support the sustainable production and consumption of forest products – for people and for the planet.