Buying local, sustainable wood

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Choosing sustainable wood for good

The import of unsustainable and even illegal timber is one of the prime causes of deforestation, and Britain is one of the main offenders. So could your next coffee table cost you the earth?

The destruction of tropical forests is second only to energy generation as a source of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unsustainable logging causes tropical forests - which normally soak up CO2 - to become a source of climate change because decaying vegetation, burning trees and disturbed soil all release carbon into the atmosphere.

That doesn't mean all timber use is a bad thing. Some wood is renewable and recyclable unlike other building materials and can be farmed from sustainable sources. And unless you burn or landfill it (where it can produce methane), wood keeps carbon out of the atmosphere. So how do you know if you're buying up the wrong trees?

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How do I do it?

Pub Fact

  • Vietnam lost half of its virgin forest to logging between 2000 and 2005, according to the FAO's controversial Global Forest Resources Assessment in 2005
  • The destruction of forests will, in the next four years alone, make a greater contribution to climate change than every single flight in the history of aviation to at least 2025, according to the government-commissioned Stern review
  • The Amazon rainforest is home to about 10% of the world's mammals, and it has been estimated that a single hectare contains as many as 300 species of tree
  • Some reports suggest that we lose an area of virgin forest the size of a football pitch to timber logging every two seconds
  • The EU imports around 2bn worth of illegally sourced wood each year

As so often, the message is that prevention is better than cure. Reducing unsustainable logging is a much more effective approach to tackling climate change than planting new trees (which is one of the reasons offsetting attracts such scepticism from scientists). So:

  • Discover your inner Heath Robinson - repair or adapt wooden objects that you already have rather than splashing out on new ones
  • Buy wood with character - second hand, recycled or antique. This reduces emissions by saving wood from landfill, where it generates methane

When you do purchase new products, use this guide for climate-friendly decisions:

  • Buy wood certified to be sustainable - such as Forest Stewardship Council wood , Pro Forest wood, or PEFC wood - but beware of scams
  • Where possible, buy local wood. The less distance that bread board has travelled, the less damage it is likely to have done to the climate
  • When you buy imported woods, temperate hardwood or durable softwood is a relatively low-impact choice, with acacia and eucalyptus tending to come from sustainable sources
  • Stay clear of tropical hardwoods - ramin, merbau, bengkirai and meranti are examples, used to make goods like musical instruments and snooker cues
  • Try bamboo, a sustainable alternative to hardwoods
  • Choose sustainable timber frames if you're considering double glazing
  • Watch out for illegal imports: the 2008 EIA report, Borderlines , cited several retailers for "failing to exercise the appropriate diligence needed to ensure illegal timber does not enter the supply chain". These include: internet traders Your Price Furniture, WiseAction and Kybotech's "BillyOh" outdoor furniture
  • And, finally, to ensure your very last act on earth doesn't hurt the planet, make sure the wood for your coffin is sustainably sourced - or even opt for a climate-friendly funeral

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How will it make a difference?

Forests store more carbon than the entire atmosphere. In fact, if they were combusted into CO2, our forests would produce 30 times as much CO2 as was released by human activity globally in 2004.

So it's no huge surprise that cutting them down, burning them to produce CO2 or landfilling them to make methane - and not replacing them with new forests - accounts for a staggering fifth of all global emissions.

  • In the next 24 hours, entirely avoidable deforestation will release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as eight million people flying from London to New York according to the Independent
  • Reducing global deforestation could save about 69 billion tonnes of carbon cumulatively from being released into the atmosphere - that's almost 440 times more than UK transport produces every year
  • Preventing logging in the tropics is particularly important because tropical trees store on average 50% more carbon per hectare than species elsewhere
  • Scientists estimate that some of the great apes could be extinct in the wild within a human generation if deforestation continues at the current rate

And what's that got to do with us? Well, according to a 2008 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), unsustainable logging is being driven by demand for wooden goods in Europe and the US. The report names the UK as the third-ranked market for Vietnamese furniture - much of which is made from illegal timber. In fact, the UK is the single biggest consumer of illegal timber in the EU.

If you find the right source, using wood is a very effective way to tackle climate change: making a bench from a cubic metre of wood instead of concrete can save up to a tonne of CO2.

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What's the debate?

Can you ever be sure that timber is sustainable?

Voluntary timber certification schemes - such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate - are the best check available, but are not totally fool-proof. Due to the complexity of timber supply chains, it's hard to know exactly where your wood originates. That's why furniture made from illegal timber is still being sold under 'sustainable' certification in Britain, according to one 2008 EIA report. These concerns about certification have been reported by the BBC, and FSC Watch offers further analysis. Certified wood remains the most reliable way to identify sustainable wood.

Is logging the main problem?

While commercial logging is a significant cause of deforestation, the majority of wood removal in Africa and substantial proportions in Asia and South America is actually due to non-commercial scavenging for fuel. It's hard to criticise people for seeking fuel to cook, and protecting remaining stocks adds to the benefits for sourcing our wood carefully.

Is the forest friend or foe?

Today's forests are 'climate friends', removing carbon from the atmosphere. It's not known for certain whether extreme weather conditions, like those associated with climate change, will increase the rate of absorption or reduce it. (Read the BBC article.) Research continues...

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Comments

Baz, Shropshire 2009-02-05

Trees are the very thing that can help get us out of this mess. In the UK we still have the 'Three little pigs' mentality, we insist on building our homes from brick. These have a huge carbon footprint as they have to be baked in a kiln or clamp. Then as they are very dense, the transport footprint is also large. I know it's a long term policy, but why don't we build our houses from wood or wood products, the insualtion value is better, it's lighter and easier to transport, we don't have many veracious wood boring insects and most importantly, wood locks up carbon for a long time.
Great advances have been made in the built environment since 1666 (great fire of London) wood should be given a chance and promoted over more poluting technologies. What do you think Bloomers?

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon
Carbon is the fourth most common chemical element in the universe, and carbon compounds - in other words, carbon chemically combined with other elements - are the basis of all known life forms on earth. Pure carbon appears in many apparently diverse forms, from diamond to graphite to charcoal, but it is much more commonly found in substances such as coal, oil, natural gas, wood and peat that we use for fuel. When we burn these substances to provide energy - either directly in our homes as heat, or in power stations to produce electricity - the combustion process produces 'oxides' of carbon, including the gas CO2.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Eco-friendly
Eco-friendly, or environmentally friendly, is a term applied to goods, services, processes or people deemed to do minimal harm to the environment. The term is shorthand for 'ecologically friendly', ecology being the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environment.
Emissions
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Emissions
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
Landfill
Landfill is disposal of rubbish by burying it under the ground.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.

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