Forests: Unlikely Hero of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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The theme this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which promises hyper-connectivity and technological breakthroughs. But will a faster, busier, more urban world simply sidestep the world’s wild places and natural systems?

The answer: it must not. Nature, including forests, is more important to this revolution than the most cutting-edge technologies. Healthy ecosystems are critical to provision of the food, water, energy and many other services that a growing human population needs to thrive and prosper equitably, no matter how tech-savvy it becomes. Technology could, however, help run our economies in a way that allows us to decouple human development from environmental degradation – an essential step to secure natural systems and our future prosperity and well-being.

Despite their low-tech appearance, forests have some pretty sophisticated operating systems – and if you think you’d be lost without your smartphone, try to imagine a world without forests. Oxygen production, carbon sequestration, a stable climate, rainfall, water purification, provision of timber, fibres, food, fuel and medicines… let’s see Siri do all that. And developments in the pipeline promise even greater demand on forests – tripling the current harvest by 2050 to supply wood for new fuels, electronic semi-conductors and clothing fibres. This in addition to increased of production of key commodities like rubber, soy, palm oil, beef and sugar, which are already key drivers of deforestation.

© WWF-US / Ricardo LisboaThe Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas in Brazil. © WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa

On one hand, the forest products industry has made great strides toward sustainability: better logging practices, strong legislative and private sector efforts to keep illegal wood out of supply chains, and growing demand for certified sustainable timber. The pulp and paper industry, with few exceptions, no longer converts natural forests to plantations – in fact, some companies are helping to restore natural forests alongside plantations.

On the other hand, the scale and pace of change is not adequate. Forests are under pressure like never before with unabated deforestation. And between the landmark Paris agreement on climate change and the worst-ever Indonesian forest fires, 2015 highlighted the stark contrast between commitment and implementation.

The CDP report on deforestation released ahead of Davos captures this contradiction perfectly. For example, over 90 per cent of the palm oil market commits to zero deforestation, but only 20 per cent is actually certified. And 80 per cent of timber companies have committed to sustainable forestry, but just over 10 per cent of the world’s forests are actually certified.

Two of the latest global satellite analyses, which are more accurate than self-reported data, identified an increase in deforestation, particularly in tropical regions. The bottom line is that we are NOT curbing deforestation. Forests are undervalued for the services they provide to society when they are destroyed for cash crops. We need to recognize and enforce the balance between production and protection, and scale up the more efficient, sustainable methods of production we’ve seen pay social, economic and environmental dividends.

Large areas of forest have been restored alongside plantations as part of a “mosaic landscape.” ©Stora EnsoLarge areas of forest have been restored alongside plantations as part of a mosaic landscape. ©Stora Enso

Poor landscape planning, corrupt governance and disempowered local communities weigh heavily against achieving a science-based approach to forest management. Yet the science does exist to help us prioritize high conservation value and high carbon forests for protection. We need our markets and our policies to properly value the ecosystem services provided by natural forests for climate stability and for industries, agriculture and indigenous people.

With a growing population putting pressure on a planet already pushed past its ecological limits, success will depend on how intelligently we design and manage a mosaic world where areas for agriculture, industry, mining, infrastructure and cities coexist with natural habitats. Is there really room for all of this? Yes – let’s not forget there is the great opportunity to restore hundreds of millions of hectares of degraded land to productive, natural, indigenous forest. This is one piece of the mosaic. Technology can help us visualize, monitor and maximize the potential of these multi-use landscapes. The rest requires a revolutionary approach to managing and valuing natural resources, including effective, transparent governance focusing on integrated, inclusive land-use planning.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be the springboard for this change in mindset. We have already seen unprecedented commitments to a universal sustainable development agenda and global climate deal. Healthy forests can underpin this promised transition, if companies seize the moment to translate the rhetoric of “deforestation-free” into real change.

Marco Lambertini is Director General of WWF International. 


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