Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Guest column: Taking ‘third path’ to bioeconomy and cleaner climate

Jun. 09, 2024

Bob Perschel | Worcester Telegram & Gazette

NEFF Executive Director Bob Perschel

The existential challenge of climate change is clear: We must significantly reduce carbon emissions while also pulling carbon out of the atmosphere at an accelerated rate.

To do that, we must create a robust bioeconomy, and forests have a crucial role to play in producing vital mass-timber building products. New England can lead the way through model forest management — a practice that I advocate and advance as head of the largest land trust in the region.

Part of the role of forests in combating climate change is well known: Forests are critical to drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, because trees absorb carbon and convert it into wood. That role should be even more highly prized and encouraged, given the scale of forests globally.

Yet often overlooked is that trees can help reduce the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere. That fact is key to reducing New England’s carbon emissions by 30% by 2050.

Reducing atmospheric carbon emissions depends on three pathways, but policymakers have only been focusing on two. The first involves changing how we power our homes and businesses by converting to green renewable energy. The second involves changing our transportation fleet from fossil fuels to renewable electric vehicles.

What’s largely missing from public discussion and policy is the third pathway, which requires reducing the climate pollution caused by the physical products used in building our homes and offices. Key to that is shifting from carbon-polluting steel, concrete and plastic to mass timber.

That’s because wood, readily available in New England, is a bio-based material that natural systems produce at little or no climate cost, and it can be produced at scale. Technological advances in processing mass timber make prioritizing it especially timely.

The truth is that we can’t solve the climate crisis without addressing this third pathway and thereby shifting to a bio-based economy — or bioeconomy. Here’s the problem: The world’s rapidly growing population requires massive amounts of housing, and that housing will be constructed, as it has for centuries, with carbon-polluting products unless we shift focus to mass timber.

Consider this: In terms of the amount of material used, the entire infrastructure of New York City is replicated globally every 30 days, as new buildings are developed in staggering numbers. To provide for the world’s growing population, we will have to produce that volume of physical objects every month for the next 40 years. We will literally cook the planet if we don’t change.

The challenge is to think differently about wood and forests, seeing them as natural resources to be properly conserved and as essential components in the transition to a bioeconomy.

Unfortunately, our climate policy and public awareness of this necessary transition are minuscule. There are no goals or metrics for shifting our consumption patterns and making better choices. In our own forest conservation community, we have a goal and metric for land conservation called 30×30, which means protecting 30% of our land by 2030. But we have no goal or metric for transitioning to bio-based products.

New England is in a position to lead, however, because it is heavily forested. Examples of significant mass-timber buildings can already be found in New England, including UMass Amherst’s John W. Olver Design Building, Groton Hill Music Center, Norwell Public Library and Common Ground High School in New Haven, Connecticut.

A question that is often asked is: Why can’t the forests just be left alone to absorb carbon on their own? The answer is that then a meaningful shift to a bioeconomy won’t happen, and the world will be left to pray that consumption of carbon-polluting products will somehow decline — all evidence to the contrary. We can’t take that chance with the future of the planet.

The best question is not: How can we consume less? Rather, it is: How can we consume less, while making better choices about the materials used in our building products? Steel and concrete must be heated to 2,700 degrees, while nature grows a nice solid block of wood at no climate cost. All we need to do is grow it sustainably and craft the timber into building products.

That doesn’t mean that forest conservation should be a lesser priority. It should be a greater one. But we must prioritize exemplary forest management as well as growing wood for mass timber.

Even as we encourage America and the world to consume less, we need to switch our consumption to bio-based products. If we do, the environment will benefit, even if reducing consumption proves unattainable. What we can’t afford is to fail on both fronts: consuming more and not shifting significantly to bio-based materials.

New England, with its abundant forests, is in a wonderful position to take the lead on shifting to a bioeconomy. Research and analysis by the New England Forestry Foundation shows that our forests can help meet 30% of our regional emissions reduction targets by 2050 if we adopt the approach outlined here.

The foundation’s 30 Percent Solution has four components: Stop net loss of forests, including of both wildlands and working woodlands; spread the use of exemplary forestry and other climate-smart forestry approaches; use renewable building materials to replace polluting steel and concrete; and lock up carbon for life in strong wood buildings.

With climate change imperiling the world, the people of New England have a chance to demonstrate what needs to be done. Our policymakers should seize this historic opportunity.

Bob Perschel is executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation, based in Littleton.