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The role of forests for a climate-resilient bioeconomy: reflections from IUFRO 2024

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The role of forests for a climate-resilient bioeconomy: reflections from IUFRO 2024

Exploring the multifaceted roles of forests in today’s world, Francis X. Johnson reflects on discussions and emerging themes from the IUFRO Congress 2024. This brief perspective explores some selected issues or views that were highlighted during the event as well as a few that seemed to be missing.

Francis X. Johnson / Published on 5 July 2024

As a Senior Research Fellow and the Climate and Bioeconomy Lead at SEI Asia, I recently had the privilege of attending the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) Congress 2024. Held only once every five years, this Congress serves as a critical gathering for discussing the diverse and crucial roles forests play in global ecological health and climate resilience.

This year’s Congress, which saw high attendance and featured hundreds of sessions on a diverse array of topics and issues, underscored the growing global recognition of the importance of forests in our ecological systems. Although the sheer number of sessions makes providing a comprehensive summary nearly impossible, it is feasible to selectively identify a few high-level themes that emerged.

A comprehensive view of forest functions

The Congress this year marked a return to a more multi-dimensional and comprehensive view of forests after a decade where the emphasis on carbon sequestration benefits of tree-planting have perhaps been over-emphasized or taken out of context.

The discussions broadened to encompass the many important ecological and socio-economic roles and services of forests and agroforestry systems, including also for Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLC). This perspective is crucial for developing integrative approaches that not only focus on forests as carbon sinks but also as essential components of our local and regional ecosystems, providing diverse social, cultural and environmental benefits.

Francis X. Johnson stands at Poster Stand 10, presenting on the role of forests in land-based mitigation at the IUFRO Congress 2024, with attendees listening and viewing detailed charts and data on the poster.

Francis X. Johnson presents SEI research on the role of forestry in land-based climate change mitigation at the IUFRO Congress 2024.

Photo: Eileen-Torres Morales / SEI.

The prominence of bioeconomy and circular economy concepts

One recurring theme at the Congress was the integration of bioeconomy and the related concept of circular economy into forestry research across many fronts. They were alluded to many times, even in sessions where they were not necessarily the primary focus. The discussions around these topics remind us of the need for unifying perspectives that can facilitate more effective and efficient utilization of forest resources and harvested biomass, including of course for climate resilience.

In his closing plenary, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, current Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and former Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, offered excellent insights into the potential of woody biomass for carbon sequestration through long-lived products. His concept of “re-timbering” our cities reflects a novel approach to achieving the negative emissions needed for climate stabilization.

Addressing under-represented issues and views

Despite the rich discussions, certain areas were notably under-represented at the Congress. The integration of experiences and knowledge from lower and middle-income countries could be better highlighted. The usual constraints and disparities apply in terms of the costs of travel and participation for developing countries. But there is also the issue of insufficient funding for research, development and demonstration related to tropical and sub-tropical forest resources. By comparison, research on the temperate forests of Europe and North America are relatively well-funded, even though these are somewhat less consequential for climate and biodiversity compared to tropical and sub-tropical regions, where deforestation pressures and land degradation are also accompanied by high potential for future productivity.

There are key non-forest resources in tropical and sub-tropical climates, such as bamboo and rattan, that are especially relevant in lower-and middle-income regions and have great potential to complement and/or supplement forest resources and services. However, discussions on these resources at IUFRO were few because they are not trees. By viewing them as playing key cross-cutting and cross-landscape roles, similar to agroforestry, these resources could be included in the next Congress and integrated into the mainstream of forest science and policy more generally.

Broadening participant diversity

The Congress was predominantly attended by researchers and scientists, highlighting an emphasis on forest research and science. However, there is tremendous value in broadening the participation to expose and educate more actors from other spheres and sectors, such as policymakers, project developers and financiers. These stakeholders are crucial for translating forest science into actionable policies and projects that can have real-world impacts on biodiversity, climate resilience and climate stabilization.

The IUFRO Congress 2024 provided a profound reminder of the critical and multidimensional role of forests in our environment. It showcased the need for continued exploration, discussion and a more inclusive approach to forest science and policy. As we move forward, fostering a comprehensive understanding and application of forest-related sciences in global efforts to combat climate change and promote ecological sustainability remains imperative.

Francis X. Johnson
Francis X. Johnson

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

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