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Digital Data is the key to sustainable forestry

1 October 2022

Forestry and climate change challenges require a far more efficient, data-intensive approach than the current status quo.

Forests are critical to fighting climate change, based in part on their ability to absorb carbon dioxide – the primary greenhouse gas threatening our planet. However, trees aren’t just for reducing carbon emissions; they are renewable resources and sustain biodiversity. That’s why understanding more precisely how forests develop, regenerate, and are harvested is key to the planet’s sustainability.

In order to manage our forests for a more sustainable future, we need insights into the planet’s forests at scale. This calls for digitizing these vast, analog spaces. Through advanced data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI), companies that manage forest inventories or produce wood-based products can better estimate these rich resources.

Sustainable forestry rests on three important pillars: circular economics, carbon offsetting, and biodiversity. Striking a balance among the three is important, but so is the ability to measure success across all three using data.

Circular economics. Harvesting forests for raw materials is as old as mankind, and although mankind has had a spotty track record in doing so responsibly, harvesting forests for raw materials will continue to be important — even to the world’s sustainability. Wood- and paper-based products play a key role in replacing less sustainable, plastic-based products and packaging. Such products are biodegradable, and the trees harvested to create them are replaced with new trees. In a circular, sustainable forestry model, they’re used, reused, recycled, and regenerated.

Carbon offsetting. Offsetting has become a critical tool in counterbalancing the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions. By investing in, protecting, replanting, and managing forest growth, companies sponsor through credits the capture of CO2 to offset their emissions, effectively reducing their carbon footprint. For carbon credits to be viable, and to avoid “green-washing”, the forest inventories of carbon projects need to be measured and tracked. Currently too many carbon projects have questionable foundations.

Biodiversity. In the process of moving toward a circular economy and carbon offsetting, sustainable forestry also needs to promote biodiversity. There will always be a need for fast-growing, commercial tree plantations — forests planted and managed to support circular industries or large-scale carbon capture — but they should be balanced with diverse forests. Biodiversity helps maintain the natural resilience of forest ecosystems and ensures their longevity for generations to come — the very definition of sustainability.

With the understanding that sustainable forestry rests on these three pillars, it’s important to understand the challenges the industry faces in strengthening them, such as:

Circular economics needs to be more efficient. When it comes to harvesting, production, and recycling, better analytics improves performance. For example, better knowledge of the quantities, locations, and timings of harvests, as well as the production of precisely what the market needs, are critical to sustainable forestry. It’s been shown that maximizing the value of forests and targeting only the wood resources producers need can improve margins of forest owners up to 7 percent.

Carbon offsetting needs to be reliable. The voluntary carbon trading market is growing fast, but participating companies are at reputational risk if they claim carbon neutrality based on credits that can’t be supported by real-world conditions. Tracking carbon-capture projects using state-of-the-art technology is key not only to ensuring such projects achieve the desired, climate-saving results, but also to proving to the ecosystem of interested parties — corporations, regulators, NGOs, the public — that they do. Such tracking needs to make use of the scientific and technical resources available today.

Biodiversity needs to be measurable. Promoting diverse forest conditions that support a more sustainable planet is essential to creating natural resilience against the impacts of climate change. Several years ago, it was common to see single-species tree afforestation used to establish fast-growing forests. Such projects need to include additional, indigenous species at different growth stages to support wildlife habitat survival and guard the variety of life. All forestation efforts must be held to their claims through rigorous monitoring and verification. This requires incorporating biodiversity products, such as species mix and keystone species, into everyday forest management. The challenge of measurable biodiversity is translating these products into reality accurately and at sufficient scale.

Addressing these challenges takes a far more efficient, data-intensive approach to understanding forests.

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By Rolf Schmitz, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of CollectiveCrunch

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