Bioeconomy, Build It With Wood, Climate-Smart Commodities

The Bioeconomy: The Missing Link in Our Climate Strategy

Apr. 17, 2024

Writing by NEFF Executive Director Bob Perschel

New England Forestry Foundation The Olver Design Building. Photo by UMass, Amherst

We are missing a critical part of a winning climate strategy.

Our climate imperative is clear: We must reduce emissions and pull carbon out of the atmosphere at an accelerated rate to keep the planet from tipping into dangerous territory.

This climate transition is a tall order, but forests can play a big role in reducing carbon while also protecting biodiversity. Everyone understands that forests are critical to drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. Trees absorb carbon and convert it into wood, and we can encourage them to do more of this—and given the scale of forests across the globe, they are front and center in the effort to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

But most of the time, when we talk about forests and climate change, we forget to account for how they can help us reduce the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere in the first place.

Reducing atmospheric carbon emissions depends on three pathways. Still, policymakers only concentrate on two of them that the public is aware of and helping with. The first pathway involves changing how we power our homes and businesses by converting to green renewable energy. Think of windmills off the coast and solar panels on our roofs. We all get it. We also have policy goals, timelines, and metrics. The public is engaged.

The second pathway involves changing our transportation fleet from fossil fuels to renewable electric vehicles. We all are aware of fully electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, and we may own one or are considering buying one for our next car. Again, we have policy goals and metrics, and advertising and products. There is full public awareness and growing participation in these first two legs of the climate stool.

But most people do not have a clear view of the third leg of the climate stool—reducing the climate pollution caused by the physical products we make and use. How much carbon pollution was caused by the plastic, steel and concrete used to build your home, provide the household products you use daily, or construct the buildings in the town or city where you live?

We can’t solve the climate crisis without addressing this product consumption pathway. Consider: 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, and we will have to produce that volume of physical objects every month for the next 40 years to provide for the world’s growing population. We will cook the planet if we continue to do that with carbon-polluting steel, concrete, and plastic.

Wood is one of the biobased materials that natural systems produce for us at little or no climate cost. And wood is one of the few biobased products that can be produced at scale. We must shift our consumption patterns and use more biobased materials. That involves transitioning to a bioeconomy; it is the third, overlooked pathway, or leg of the climate stool.

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 percent of our land by 2030. But what about our transition to biobased products? We have no goal or metric for that.

In Europe, it is different. There, countries across the European Union have national strategies to reduce dependence on non-renewable, unsustainable resources to transition to a bioeconomy and use more renewable wood.

Another reason to make this transition centers on our consumption patterns, as U.S. citizens consume a disproportionate amount of material per capita. We could clearly lessen the climate problem and other environmental problems if we consumed less. But the right question is not, how can we consume less, but rather, how can we consume less while making better choices about the materials that go into our products? We have to heat steel and concrete to 2,700 degrees. Nature grows a nice solid block of wood for us at no climate cost, and all we need to do is grow it sustainably and slice it up to make our building products.

Let’s get the great American consumer to consume less if we can, but even as we encourage this, switching our consumption to biobased products is probably a more readily available pathway. The video below provides several scenarios. We can consume less and keep the ratio of biobased products as low as today. We could consume the same amount and increase the use of biobased products—a climate win. Or we could consume more and increase the use of biobased products—perhaps holding the climate battle steady. What we don’t want to do is to fail on both fronts: consuming more and not shifting the current trend away from biobased materials. That would be a climate disaster.

Forests can remove carbon from the atmosphere and also lower emissions by providing natural materials to support the transition to a bioeconomy. NEFF’s 30 Percent Solution indicates New England forests can sequester and store an additional 650 million metric tonnes, the equivalent of 30 percent of the emissions reductions needed for the region to reach its net zero goals by 2050. That is a stunning number, but sustainably managed forests can also reduce climate pollution by increasing the use of biobased materials in creating the built environment.

With climate-smart and ecologically sustainable forest management, we can provide more renewable wood to replace steel, concrete, and plastic. To meet the potential of forests to store carbon, support biodiversity and provide an increased flow of bio-based products, we will have to manage forests differently in an era of climate emergency, recognizing their biological limits. That is why NEFF codified Exemplary Forestry practices, which are focused on increasing the wood fiber supply while protecting wildlife habitat and storing more carbon within the forest.

As an example of the new bioeconomy, NEFF has highlighted tall wood (mass timber) buildings, six to 18 stories high, made out of wood instead of steel and concrete. This building revolution is poised to move out of the early adoption stage and into generalized use. Examples abound in New England, such as The New Haven High School, UMass Amherst’s John W. Olver Design Building, the C. Gerald Lucey Building of the Massachusetts Deptartment of Unemployment Assistance, Groton Hill Music Center, Norwell Public Library, and the upcoming Portland Art Museum. In fact, right here in our region, UMaine has pioneered a 3-D printer to print an entire house using a wood substrate sustainably sourced from our New England forests to help solve our affordable housing crisis while also addressing the climate and biodiversity crises.

Join NEFF’s efforts to help solve the climate crisis by lowering consumption, making better product choices, encouraging the spread of Exemplary Forestry, and transitioning to a forest-based bioeconomy. Our world will be better for it.