Around the world, multiple efforts are underway to contribute to the goal and to find the best methods for achieving it. Climate Change and Land, a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2019, addresses how land use and sustainable land management can affect the climate.
The report highlights how land sectors will become more crucial in the climate efforts and how sustainable forest management can contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change.

“We need to put more effort into the land sectors such as forestry and agriculture and focus on those actions that can cut emissions and may also have health benefits such as less air pollution or developmental benefits such as access to modern energy,” says Francis X. Johnson, a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute and contributor to the IPCC report. Johnson has more than 20 years of experience in analysing climate change mitigation, bioenergy strategies, energy efficiency and the economic and environmental aspects of biofuels.

“We have seen a shift in the energy sector and that transformation is well underway. The costs of solar and wind energy have come down and renewable energy is an area where we have made progress. Land use, however, has been slower to transform,” says Johnson. “We use a tremendous amount of land for animal feed production now. More than half of all the biomass we use is for animal feed, which is a staggering figure.”

Land activities such as animal feed production emit an enormous amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) but unlike in the energy sector, Johnson sees a reluctance to fully tackle these areas. He attributes this to the challenge of regulating so many different systems for forests, livestock, landfill and agriculture. “Their emissions are all regulated differently and not tied to a price like energy is with a [more straightforward] emissions trading system,” says Johnson.

“We use a tremendous amount of land for animal feed production now. More than half of all the biomass we use is for animal feed, which is a staggering figure.”

— Francis X. Johnson

Reducing emissions from land use, such as those associated with agricultural production, deforestation and livestock, is an important aspect in addressing the climate crisis. At the same time, changes in land use management have the potential to offset these emissions and play a vital role in reducing CO2. According to the IPCC report, land sectors are responsible for approximately 23 per cent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions and significant land-based mitigation measures that remove CO2 from the atmosphere will likely be needed if the Paris Agreement’s climate targets are to be achieved.

Forests work as carbon sinks, capturing CO2, but a key challenge lies in maximising the forests as carbon sinks while utilising the forests to produce bio-based materials and products. “There are ways to do both of course, like in Sweden and other countries where there is a highly managed and efficient forestry system where you don’t remove more wood biomass than you put back – and they might even plant a bit more for the carbon sink,” says Johnson.

When forestry products are used as a substitution for plastic, metal or cement products, then the contribution to climate change mitigation is improved further. Wood and paperboard for example are renewable materials and not as energy intensive to produce as steel, plastics or concrete. “The more you can improve the bio-based content in a sustainable way and the more you can contribute to biological

processes instead of chemical ones, you are making a contribution to improving the climate,” says Johnson, adding that Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is an important tool for assessing such environmental impacts.

Senior Researcher Michael Sturges of RISE, Sweden’s state-owned research institute, knows all about LCAs and bio-based materials particularly for packaging. He has extensive experience in the sustainability field working with WRAP, the UK Environmental Agency and the OECD, among other organisations, and he recently completed the BioPackLCA project, funded by Packforsk, a large consortium of packaging value chain stakeholders. The project was designed to help stakeholders in bio-based packaging improve upon the old methodologies for LCA evaluations by taking into account new thinking, bio-based packaging and single-use plastics.

“For a sustainable economy we need to have sustainable materials and logically it means moving towards a bio-based economy where we are utilising sustainably produced renewable materials and circular materials. There are huge climate benefits from bio-based packaging, particularly fibre-based packaging,” Sturges says, adding, “The forest will become an even bigger resource in the future for our society as a source of materials.”

Bio-based products are derived from materials of biological origin, such as plants and trees. Much of today’s packaging is made of bio-based paper and paperboard, but food packaging in particular often relies on plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels, namely oil.

“Right now, everyone is aware of the need to address key environmental challenges and move away from single-use plastics,” says Sturges. “There is a strong need for companies to find alternative solutions to single-use plastics in packaging applications, and bio-based packaging can offer multiple advantages.”

The advantages with bio-based packaging include a positive contribution to climate change as well as advantages at end-of-life, he adds. “Fibre-based packaging is generally recyclable, potentially compostable and more likely to biodegrade in the environment if it’s mishandled by consumers and becomes litter.”

Paper and paperboard packaging have a strong foothold in the market and bio-based packaging in general will gain even more market share as society scales up and costs for biopolymers decrease, says Sturges, adding that more innovations will result from combining different solutions to increase functionality. “For example, how do we combine fibre-based board and paper packaging with biopolymers in a way that delivers greater functionality – or process fibres to create solutions that have not been thought of before, as in the Paboco paper bottle project? They are thinking of how to use and process bio-materials in ways that haven’t been done before and this is very important.”

Sturges also points out that plastics and other fossil-based materials might become more expensive over time, which would also discourage their use. 

“The costs for fossil-based materials are likely to go up because of the responsibility movement. In the past, producers were not accountable for paying the full costs of managing materials at end-of-life.

This will change as higher recycling targets for fossil-based material push up the cost of ownership for those solutions. This in turn will help make bio-based materials more competitive.”

Sturges has another interesting economic argument for speeding up the shift to bio-based solutions from the current fossil fuel-based polymer packaging.

“The supply and demand for fossil-based materials can be upset by global politics and also the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground as everyone says we should. Petroleum-based polymers are a byproduct of the oil and gas industry and this is partly what keeps their cost down. But if we leave oil and gas in the ground, then that changes the economics for plastics as it may create a supply problem for the chemicals needed. They will no longer be available or will need to be drilled just to make plastic polymers – and that won’t happen.”

Nonetheless, bio-based packaging still has a way to go to fulfil all user demands for functionality. “We know bio-based solutions can’t always achieve the same level of performance as plastics today when it comes to the oxygen and moisture barrier, but there is lots of work going on to address those challenges and maybe some compromise is needed too,” says Sturges. “We might have to accept packaging that is not as effective as plastics for a while until we work that out.”

“Right now, everyone is aware of the need to address key environmental challenges and move away from single-use plastics.”

— Michael Sturges

As pressure mounts against oil and gas companies, compromise may be the only way to go. A recent analysis from The Guardian and the Climate Accountability Institute in the US reveals that 20 multinational fossil fuel companies have contributed to 35 per cent of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, putting further pressure on these companies to reduce their drilling.

“I think companies will be affected by the rising costs of fossil-based materials and managing their end-of-life,” says Sturges. “Companies that don’t start switching to more bio-based packaging will also experience consumer pushback. The younger generation has become exceptionally active around environmental issues and plastic fossil-based packaging in particular. I recommend that companies talk to suppliers to see what materials are available and work closely with them to close the gap in performance and cost.”

And as Francis X. Johnson sums it up, “Combining sustainable land management while advancing a new innovative bio-economy agenda that emphasises bio-based products offers a highly effective double-punch to the climate crisis by simultaneously improving carbon sinks AND reducing fossil emissions through product substitution.”