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The consumption dilemma

Wink Sutton's Blog
Saturday, February 27, 2010

The environmentally minded are extremely disappointed that so little was achieved at Copenhagen. Given that all the major players were politicians it was naïve to expect an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Government leaders, especially of democratic developed economies, were unable to make commitments that could reduce their nation’s living standards and increased costs. Even less acceptable was the proposal to transfer money to developing economies whose government may be corrupt, incompetent or not democratic.

Governments universally strive for growth. Economic growth increases both employment and taxation. In contrast, contraction of the economy increases unemployment and decreases taxation income but also increases the pressure for greater social spending especially for unemployment benefits.

As the principle reason for growth is consumption we should not be surprised at the failure of Copenhagen. No responsible government is prepared to commit political suicide by agreeing to anything that reduces consumption.

Another complication is the sensitive issue of population. The global population is nearing seven billion and is increasing by about 85 million every year.The world cannot support the world’s current population, especially its expectation of increasing standards of living. Where there is little or no social security, having many children is a guarantee of a work force as well as support in old age. Increasing living standards helps reduce population growth as wealthy countries or the wealthy in poorer countries have low birth rates. The population issue is a Catch 22 aspect of the consumption dilemma.

Use more wood

I may be one of many who are not convinced that climate change is the result of our continual atmospheric release of greenhouse gases, but I am certain that the greatest threat to human survival is our overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels, especially oil. We may have already used half of the world’s readily available oil reserves. The world will also face increasing shortages of other minerals and materials.

The world must move to renewable resources. Wood is our most renewable and our most versatile material. The importance of forests is not that they sequester carbon but, if responsibly managed, forests are the source of wood. Forests and wood use should be promoted both as a substitute for energy requiring materials and as an energy source. If the world is really serious about reducing carbon dioxide, we should at least be encouraging wood use as well as taxing, and certainly not subsidising, high energy requiring and net carbon emitting materials such as concrete and steel.

Change needed

An increased wood use may be desirable but unless there is an immediate and radical change in attitude by both government and environmental organisations a greater wood use is most unlikely. As the global price of wood has fallen dramatically, wood processors round the world have increasingly gone out of business. In New Zealand the first decade of this century has seen plantation establishment spectacularly decline. New planting has almost ceased and as existing plantations are being cleared for conversion to dairy farms.

Was anyone at Copenhagen advancing an increased wood use and better forest management as a solution to the world’s major problems? I very much doubt it − they got very little media coverage if they did.

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Forestry and wood use are ignored or unfairly treated

Wink Sutton's Blog
Sunday, November 29, 2009

On a per capita basis the world’s human population currently uses a greater weight of wood than the combined total weight of at least 10 of the most common plant foods. Wood is our most versatile and our only major raw material that is renewable. Given wood’s environmental friendliness, its low energy requirements and its potential as a supplier of renewable energy, we should expect greater encouragement for forestry and the use of wood.

But this is not so. At the international level wood use and forestry are very largely ignored.

The principle aim of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was Agenda 21 − the environmental blueprint for the 21st Century. Initially, forestry aspects were almost ignored. There were only two topics that were in any way related to forestry − combating desertification and preventing tropical deforestation. The world has Malaysia to thank for widening the discussion to include all of the world’s forests and New Zealand to thank for recognising the contribution of plantations or planted forests.

Now the international focus is on reducing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As they grow, forests sequester carbon and the use of wood either releases energy, effectively stored solar energy, or is a low energy and environmentally friendly raw material. In permanent structures wood continues to store carbon. Even if the carbon in wood is finally released into the atmosphere it is recycled as it re-sequestered by the growing forest. We would expect that this renewable and environmentally friendly recycling system should be given at least equal if not privileged treatment – again, not so.

Although forestry and wood use have much to offer in the reduction of greenhouse gases, the present Kyoto rules are hardly favourable to either forestry or wood use. Carbon credits can only be claimed for trees planted since 1989. When trees are harvested the forest owner has to repay those carbon credits unless the forest canopy remains intact. No credit can be claimed for any carbon stored in wood products. This is in striking contrast to how fossil fuels are treated. For fossil fuels there is no carbon penalty at extraction and all carbon penalties fall on the user.

Why is forestry and wood use so poorly treated when is has so much to contribute to the present aim of restricting the release of carbon into the atmosphere? Could it be because forestry departments world-wide are small and dominated by agriculture. Wood’s competitors are often the products of very large and powerful companies. In comparison, wood companies are small – the largest wood company in the world controls a little over two per cent of the world’s industrial wood.

Subsidies are being proposed for carbon polluters. Subsidies are great for carbon polluting companies as their carbon emitting products face no increase in price. The cost of their carbon pollution is transferred to the tax-payer. Rarely discussed are the marketing distortion effects of these subsidies. Without subsidies the carbon polluting products would be more expensive, and environmentally friendly wood products would be more price competitive. The demand for wood products would increase and forest establishment and management would be encouraged. Our present government has said it wants to encourage forest establishment but its proposal to introduce market distorting subsidies greatly undermines this forestry objective.

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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