The notion of cutting down trees to save the climate sounds contradictory at first. Yet the opposite is true: the sustainable use of wood could even play an important role in solving the climate dilemma. Professor Radermacher, Head of the Institute for Databases and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Ulm, participant in the Global Marshall Plan Initiative (an international network for fair globalisation) and member of the Club of Rome (think tank of experts for sustainable development), took the time to explain why this is so.
Pollmeier magazine: Professor Radermacher, following the last climate summit in Paris it was agreed to limit global warming to (ideally) less than 2 degrees. This was celebrated as a great success in the media. Is it that?
Franz Josef Radermacher: Paris was indeed a great success. After all, it can't be taken for granted that almost 200 countries with very different interests and initial situations are able to agree on common positions with regard to such a sensitive issue as the climate. With the Global Climate Treaty which is due to enter into force in 2020 we will have a significantly improved initial situation compared to the current state of affairs. However, that does not means that the actual pledges in this treaty would result in the conditions to limit global warming to 2°C or less – that is another issue.
P-M: In your talk "Globalisation – Sustainability – Future: The Role of Resources and The Timber Industry", you state: "With regards to the sustainability debate, the reference is not to the survival of mankind, but rather to the living conditions of billions of people." What do you mean by that?
F.-J. Radermacher: Today Earth is home to 7.5 billion people, 10,000 years ago this figure was just 20 million. Billions of people would still be able to live on Earth even if the climatic conditions were to change dramatically. Yet this number would probably be far less than today. However, the living conditions of those who remain would not be nearly as comfortable as what we are currently used to. In particular, the transition to this "new" world would come with great stresses, unnecessary suffering and premature deaths of possibly billions of people. This must be prevented as far as possible, even if we are not talking here about the survival of mankind as a whole.
P-M: To what extent does the intensive use of wood offer a solution to this problem?
F.-J. Radermacher: Try to imagine it like this: prior to Paris the climate situation was comparable to a bottomless pit which we were trying to fill. This is, of course, a hopeless undertaking. If the Paris Treaty is implemented, this will give the pit a bottom in the form of the global limitation of CO2 emissions, even if this limit is still increasing. The pit is half full or, in other words, the scale of emissions is still too high. We need to fill the pit, i.e., we need to reduce emissions further or remove these from the atmosphere. And this needs to be done within a time frame – we need to win time for new technical solutions in the energy sector (Ed.: development of regenerative energy sources; improvement in energy stores, deep geothermics). This opens up a large window for so-called negative emissions in the form of biological sequestration. Here CO2 is taken from the atmosphere through biological activities. The most high-profile example of this is large-scale global reforestation projects, possibly on 500 million to 1 billion hectares of degraded soil in the tropics. A second approach promotes humus formation in agriculture. The third approach is the protection and renaturation of wetland biotopes. Wood has a major role to play here.
P-M: The use of wood cannot be generalised. What conditions need to be satisfied?
F.-J. Radermacher: In essence the focus is on saving time. We need to use the time saved at a political level. The focus must be on innovations which will lead to a new energy system which can be used all around the world; a system which is economic, environmentally friendly and climate-neutral. The time saved from the generation of negative emissions is a decisive approach. This is where wood comes into play. Clearly the use of wood as a raw material is a far more effective approach than the use of wood to create energy since the sequestered CO2 is released when the energy is produced. Generally speaking then wood should be put to material use and only those parts of trees should be used for energy generation which are regarded as waste and which cannot be used for material, longer term applications.
P-M: Let us summarise: what needs to happen in terms of wood usage in order to create a positive future?
F.-J. Radermacher: We need to initiate global reforestation efforts. Reforestation is always expedient, even on degraded soils. It is also helpful to put the felled wood to material use, whereby ideally such use should extend over 50, 100 or even more years. Basically the period of time before the wood is used to generate energy or thus rots and in this way releases the bound CO2 should be kept as long as possible. Time savings are currently an all-important issue.
P-M: On average and depending on the application, timber constructions bind the CO2 taken from the atmosphere for 30 years. What happens after that? Are we not simply postponing the problem? Or is wood a longterm solution as a CO2 store?
F.-J. Radermacher: I don't know how you arrived at 30 years. If we were to start major reforesting campaigns on the degraded soils of the tropics, CO2 would be absorbed from the atmosphere up until the trees are felled. That is around 40 to 50 years. Following that, the large majority of the wood should be put into material use. Such usage can, in part, extend well beyond 30 years and last up to 100 or 200 years. Even with usage of (just) 30 years, in combination with the 40 years of tree growth, this would cover a period of 70 years. This opens up new opportunities. Once again, it is about saving time. CO2 is only removed from the atmosphere whilst the trees are growing. This effect can only be achieved once. When the trees are felled, new ones must be planted immediately to ensure climate neutrality.
P-M: What do you recommend to institutions such as companies, medium-sized enterprises and average consumers to achieve this goal?
F.-J. Radermacher: I recommend that they voluntarily opt for climate neutrality regardless of the statutory requirements. The climate neutrality of these players and, in particular, private individuals is a major component in achieving the 2°C goal. For those who regard themselves as average consumers this is especially easy. It is a matter of just a few clicks in the Internet and the costs are also negligible. You will find more information on this in the portal www.beazero.org/. Another interesting contact is the climate initiative of the Senat der Wirtschaft e.V. (Senate of Economy) (www.weltwaldklima.de). I would refer the various industries to the climate alliance in Vorarlberg (www.vorarlberg.klimabuendnis.at/) and the recently agreed climate pact of the Gütegemeinschaft Möbel e.V. (German Furniture Quality Assurance Association) (www.dgm-moebel.de).
P-M: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us!
At Pollmeier we are committed to sustainability: we procure all our wood from sustainably managed forests. Furthermore, we support projects such as "Wald wird mobil" which work to raise awareness and educate forest owners on issues relating to sustainability.