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Forest Forward: Illuminating the path for climate action and conservation

The urgent move away from fossil resources means that biomass use will be heavily incentivised for the use in fuel, energy and material supply chains and this presents serious sustainability risks which must be addressed. RSB’s multi-stakeholder member community has developed an approach to define which types of woody biomass feedstock can be used and which safeguards have to be applied to create a positive climate impact without endangering ecosystems.

The switch to biomass – from fields and forests – is inevitable. To achieve the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement, warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels – requiring a 45 percent reduction of emissions by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050, relative to 2010 levels. Most roadmaps for achieving these emission reductions, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2019 special report Climate Change and Land and the 2018 U.S. National Climate Assessment, require a significant portion to come from the switch to biomass. Almost every vision of a climate positive future includes the use of agricultural and forest biomass to some extent.

The reality is that not only is there an inherent limit on how much can be produced on our planet, but that biomass is in demand: for food and feed production, for applications as diverse as biofuels, energy, plastics, textiles and more, and in the case of forests for its inherent conservation and biodiversity value. Without proper regulation and management, the scramble for biomass risks accelerating unsustainable resource extraction, further exacerbating the biodiversity crisis caused by deforestation, the release of emissions from destroying precious forest carbon sinks, and loss of the potential to accumulate more carbon in forests.

Further, the idea that burning biomass is inherently carbon neutral ignores the complexity of accounting for carbon in forest settings where carbon pools, such as living biomass, dead wood and soil organic matter, all impact any potential emission reduction. Once these are accounted for, many sources of forest biomass have little or no climate benefit compared to fossil feedstocks and may even result in greater emissions than the use of virgin fossil resources.

The pushback on biomass is powerful. NGOs around the world are sounding alarm bells that global demand for biomass is driving deforestation in ancient and endangered woodlands and releasing enough emissions to entirely negate any climate benefit. For these stakeholders the use of woody biomass from forests is rarely, if ever, an acceptable approach in the fight on climate change.

However, there is a science-based and environmentally-responsible approach to the harvesting and use of woody biomass that can unlock benefits and ensure accurate carbon accounting while protecting the vital role forests play in combatting climate change, preventing desertification and land degradation, and maintaining water and nutrients within soil.

RSB and its member community have developed such an approach, that at its core recognises the importance of conserving forest ecosystems whilst unlocking certain limited types of woody biomass for use in fuels, energy and materials. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials provides a sustainability framework – grounded in its 12 Principles and Criteria – for the production of fuels, energy and materials from bio-based and recycled feedstocks. RSB’s approach is applied through its independent, third-party certification scheme, as well as to support global policy development and industry decision-making.

To ensure that forests are maintained and that carbon emissions are correctly accounted for, RSB’s uniquely robust approach for woody biomass defines assessment criteria for the sustainability of feedstocks including no-go sources of forest biomass, how to accurately calculate the greenhouse gas impact of harvesting woody biomass and how to properly categorise materials as waste or residue.

The result is a holistic approach, backed by science, that ensures:

  • The effective management of forests to conserve biodiversity, as well as ecosystem services like those that protect watersheds and maintain carbon sinks;
  • That carbon extracted from forests is effectively accounted for; and
  • That harvesting and processing residues are true residues.

Since the beginning of 2020, there has been ongoing stakeholder consultation and work by RSB members to create an approach, grounded in science and upholding the highest levels of environmental sustainability, for the use of forest biomass. This approach is now ready and approved for industry use to certify sustainable use of woody biomass.

Important elements of RSB’s approach for woody biomass[1], which is verified by examining forest management practices and not just sourcing policies, include:

  • Areas that are identified as “no-go areas” cannot be used to source biomass. No-go areas include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • The World Conservation Union “IUCN” Category I-IV protected areas:
  • Wetlands of International Importance designated under the Ramsar Convention:
  • World Heritage Sites designated under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention:
  • Biosphere Reserves designated under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme: sciences/biosphere-reserves/
  • Other legally protected areas
  • Primary Forest, i.e. naturally regenerated forest, where there are no clearly visible indication of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.
  • Ancient and Endangered Forests identified by the Canopy Forest mapper:
  • Only those feedstock types that have been identified as low risk for unaccounted emissions from forest carbon pool changes are eligible for RSB certification.
  • Feedstocks that have a medium or high risk of creating additional GHG impacts, such as stumps or low quality roundwood, are not eligible for RSB certification for fuel, heat or electricity generation.
  • Sufficient biomass must be left on the ground to minimise the loss of soil organic carbon and maintain or improve soil health and biodiversity; this is verified at the forest management level.

Finding a balance between growing demand for biomass to meet climate targets and ensuring the conservation of vital forest ecosystems and guaranteeing real climate benefits is vital. Without a robust approach and guidance to work towards or adhere to, the use of forest biomass might go unchecked or see the industry driven to a less robust approach.

RSB’s approach for woody biomass has the potential to drive good practice and give consumers a standard of practice to demand. This approach gives customers and brands a framework to push for and an approach we can together call for the forestry industry to adopt.

[1] To ensure additional safeguards on the use of forestry harvesting residues from natural forests, these will be excluded until additional normative guidance can be developed and published.

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