Week of 04/25/10

Dear EarthTalk: Which woods are OK to purchase, and which are not, in the interest of preserving forests and not harming those who depend upon them?

—Jon Steiner, Boise, ID

Deforestation continues to be one of the world’s biggest environmental problems, especially in fast developing regions like South America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Cutting down large numbers of trees erodes land and silts waterways, displaces native people and wildlife, and releases tons of carbon dioxide (which is stored in living wood fiber) into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Of course, wood products are essential to modern life. Without wood we wouldn’t have the buildings, furniture, paper and other essentials we make use of every day. That’s why protecting sources of wood has become a leading concern among not just environmentalists but everyone else as well.

In response to the problems wrought by increasing deforestation, some forward-thinking wood products professionals teamed up with environmentalists, native people’s advocates, community forestry groups and responsible corporations to form the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993. Previous attempts to stem the tide of unchecked logging—including international negotiations and boycotts—were having little effect, so FSC vowed to use the power of market forces to create change for the better.

Whether you"re shopping for building materials, wooden furniture or other items, the simplest way to tell if the wood you are considering buying was harvested from sustainable sources is to look for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label.© Giles Douglas, courtesy Flickr

FSC promotes responsible management of forests by certifying forestry operations around the globe and promoting its certification system at every step of the wood products distribution chain. Whether you’re shopping for wooden furniture, building materials or other items, one easy way to tell if the wood you are considering buying was harvested from sustainable sources is to look for the FSC label on it or its packaging. If it is, you can trust that such products were harvested sustainably and are not contributing to deforestation-related woes. If you don’t see the FSC logo, you should inquire as to where the wood came from and whether or not it was harvested sustainably.

The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns consumers to avoid purchasing some tropical hardwoods unless they can be assured that it came from sustainable forestry operations. Many of these woods—including Big Leaf Mahogany, Spanish Cedar, Caribbean Pine, Ipe, Rosewood, Teak, Ramin, Merbau, African Mahogany, and Okoume—are difficult to manage sustainably as they typically grow in low densities in natural forests and regenerate poorly after logging. Some woods and wood products may contain FSC-certified wood without bearing the logo, while other woods may be OK without going through the FSC certification process. If you don’t see an FSC logo you should ask. If the store salesperson can’t provide information, then you can’t be sure.

Even better than purchasing sustainably harvested new wood is to seek out reclaimed or salvaged wood, as it precludes the need for logging altogether. An added benefit of using reclaimed or salvaged wood—look for it at used building supply stores and even at construction sites where older materials are being tossed—is that it provides incentives for municipal recycling programs. NRDC suggests that if you can’t source used wood, consider recycled plastic lumber or composites if they are applicable for your project.

CONTACTS: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); NRDC.

Dear EarthTalk: There have been many contradictory reports ("it was good; it was bad") about what came out of "COP 15," the December 2009 international Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen. Can you set the record straight?

—Jay Killian, Brookline, MA

Hopes were high that international negotiators in Copenhagen last December would hammer out a strong agreement to once and for all take the climate beast by the horns and begin to reign in carbon emissions worldwide. But a new binding formal agreement was not to be.© Getty Images

Indeed hopes were high that international negotiators in Copenhagen last December at the 15th Annual Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would be able to hammer out a strong agreement to once and for all take the climate beast by the horns and begin to reign in carbon emissions worldwide. But a new binding formal agreement was not to be, mostly because of conflicting priorities among participating countries.

Even a weaker 11th hour voluntary "framework" put forth by the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa failed to win consensus support among the 119 attending heads of state. However, the resulting Copenhagen Accord—which aims to keep global temperatures from reaching any more than 2˚C (3.6˚F) above pre-industrial times—did leave the door open for a stronger agreement later, with developing countries pledging a total of $30 billion in the short term and $100 billion a year by 2020, mostly to help less developed nations adopt policies and technologies to keep carbon footprints small moving forward.

"This accord cannot be everything that everyone hoped for, but it is an essential beginning," reports UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "The bad news is that the Accord is not legally binding and provides no plan of how to limit emissions," says climatologist Mark Maslin of the University College of London’s (UCL) Environment Institute, pointing out that the original text leading up to the meeting called for a global cut in emissions of 50 percent by 2050, including an 80 percent cut by all developed countries.

The lack of detail in the resulting Accord regarding specific emissions reductions targets means cooperation is completely voluntary, which is not what environmentalists want to hear. "The Accord should be seen as simply a face-saving agreement," comments Maslin. "The politics are clear: Some developed and the richer developing countries resisted the call for legal limits to emissions."

The failure of COP15 to generate a binding agreement means that international policymaking will likely take a back seat in the effort to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and profligate carbon emissions. Chris Flavin of the U.S.-based Worldwatch Institute believes that future progress on climate "will be driven more by domestic economics and politics rather than the international negotiating process."

Flavin goes on to say that climate change mitigation will depend on the ability of individual nations "to persuade domestic constituents that they will benefit economically as well as environmentally from an energy transition." He adds that future UN climate talks should focus not on overarching agreements but on practical goals like providing funding for poor countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, accelerating international cooperation on technology, and coordinating a global effort to protect the world’s remaining forests given their capacity to store large amounts of carbon. "Efforts over the next few years will determine whether Copenhagen was a fatal setback for efforts to combat climate change, or just a painful mid-course correction," concludes Flavin.

CONTACTS: UNFCCC; Worldwatch Institute.

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