Point of view: Science-based greenwashing

25.4.2016 / Article
Gene reserve forest in Lapinjärvi. Photo: Erkki Oksanen

An article on forest carbon sinks in Science was immediately taken into marketing use by the hygiene paper producer Fourstones. According to the article, European forestry accelerates global warming.

Fourstones, a British producer of hygiene papers writes on its website about an observation made by ”researchers” and quoted by various sources that ”trees grown since 1750 have actually increased global warming.” (See here, visited 22.4.2016.) On the basis of this observation, the company announces that timber should not be used to produce paper – despite actually being in that business itself.

Instead of several sources, Fourstones only refers to one as the source for its information: the article published in Science. However, Fourstones does not quote the article directly, but provides a link to a story (visited 22.4.2016) by the BBC. What is true is that there really are several researchers: the article is co-authored by seven people.

The basic idea of the article is quoted correctly by Fourstones. The authors present that, in 1750, European forests were mainly quite dense and consisted of broadleaved species; these forests were subsequently felled due to several reasons, and the afforestation started in the 19th century mostly relied on coniferous species.

This development is assumed to have accelerated global warming because, compared to coniferous trees, deciduous trees reflect more of the sun’s radiation back into the space.

On the basis of this, Fourstones concludes that trees should not be used to produce paper at all. The company itself uses recycled fibre, and claims without any hesitation that no timber is needed in wood fibre recycling:

“No more trees harmed at all, even the cardboard cores we use in our paper disposables are made of recycled material. Once again, no more trees were harmed!”

Reliance on recycling alone is a short-lived joy

Recycling paper is, of course, a good thing, but Fourstones must know that if felling trees is stopped, their business will come to a rapid end. Wood fibre can only be recycled a couple of times before it breaks down into pieces too small for paper manufacturing. This is why new fibre must be continuously added into the recycling process, and this virgin fibre always comes from harvested trees.

It comes as no surprise that the Science article has been co-opted for marketing purposes. Neither does the fact that the conclusions drawn by Fourstones about the perniciousness of felling trees are not actually based on the article – which only recommends that forestry principles should be reconsidered.

What does astonish is that an article based on such weak argumentation was published by Science. (Look at the article here, visited 22.4.2016, chargeable.) This astonishment is reflected in the lively public discussion on the article (see here, visited 22.4.2016), which the scientific community characterizes as ”stormy”.

An example of the article’s weaknesses is its assumption that European forestry has remained the same during the last 260 years. In addition to this, it assumes that – with a few minor exceptions – all European forests are the same, and so forestry activities, too, have been the same everywhere in Europe.

No arguments are given in the article for the choice of 1750 as the baseline year for the evaluation of European forests. The authors appear to think that in that year, a kind of natural state reigned in European forests, though it is very well known that the forests around the Mediterranean and in Central Europe had been more or less cut down as early as the Middle Ages. In England, for example, the forests were destroyed about a thousand years ago.

Unfounded assumptions

According to the article, before the advent of humans there were more deciduous trees in Europe than there are now. However, this is just guesswork.

The article is correct in stating that more solar radiation is reflected back into the space by deciduous forests than by coniferous ones. What it does not mention is that the difference is due to snow cover, which naturally reflects radiation better than vegetation.

In wintertime, sunlight reaches the snow cover in deciduous forests without much difficulty because the trees are bare, while in coniferous forests a large share of the radiation is absorbed by the evergreen canopies of trees before reaching the reflective surface of the snow.

However, this is only of significance in northern Europe and only during winter even there.

The article may be just another instance of a fairly general attitude: Not Invented Here.

The article presents that halting forest degradation became possible thanks to the use of fossil fuels. However, there is no evidence that the use of timber as fuel has decreased during fossil fuels’ period of time.

For example, take modern forest industry: as much as half of the timber harvested for industrial use today ends up directly as fuel. On the other hand, modern burning processes do not create small particle emissions into the atmosphere, though the article presents this as an inevitable and negative climate consequence of the use of wood as fuel.

Forestry has undergone a complete makeover

The Science article draws far-reaching conclusions based on partial truths. This, of course, is far from unusual if somebody wants to downplay the significance of forest use in mitigating climate change.

The conclusions presented in the article are also questionable because no alternative developments are examined: what if Europeans had not used timber at all? How much more of fossil raw materials would we have used then, and how much less carbon would then have been bound in various products, for example?

What is more, European forestry has changed substantially, especially during the last decades of the period covered in the article. The production of wood has increased significantly since the 1950s, and so has forest cover, by 25 percent. The proportion of deciduous trees has been systematically increased.

In terms of the length of the period evaluated, the principles of ecologically sustainable forestry have been adopted at a rather late date. The role of forests in the global carbon cycle was only recognized in the Kyoto Protocol in 1992.

In fact, the article may be just another instance of a fairly general attitude: Not Invented Here.

To Harvest or to Save ‒ use of forest in climate change combat


Hannes Mäntyranta

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