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Forestry value chain innovations can help mitigate effects of climate change

An image of Dr Schalk Grobbelaar

SCHALK GROBBELAAR When a tree grows, it takes in carbon dioxide, produces oxygen and uses the carbon as a building block for its growth

22nd March 2024

By: Lumkile Nkomfe

Creamer Media Reporter

     

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Given the climate crisis in South Africa and around the world, tertiary education institution University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Technology and Innovation senior lecturer Dr Schalk Grobbelaar argues that innovations in the forestry value chain will be key in safeguarding the environment.

“When a tree grows, it takes in carbon dioxide, produces oxygen and uses the carbon as a building block for its growth. Trees also act as natural air purifiers by filtering out pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Rainfall patterns and regional climate patterns are regulated by trees, which also reduce soil erosion caused by wind and water. The products produced from these natural wonders are just as amazing,” says Grobbelaar.

He says that humans contribute to climate change in a manner that places our way of living and, in extreme cases, our survival, at risk. However, he maintains that there is hope, and that nature has already developed some of the solutions.

He notes that trees can assist during their life cycle and are vital to the bioeconomy, adding that advancements in tree breeding, planting techniques, harvesting practices and product manufacturing have already contributed to enhancing the climate-balancing and biodiversity-promoting role of trees in ecosystems and have the potential to amplify their impact further.

He asserts that innovations in tree genetics are leading to the increased growth rate of trees, while improvements in disease and pest control are increasing the survival rate of trees. Grobbelaar adds that better harvesting techniques can reduce the carbon footprint of operations, improve soil conditions, reduce fire risks and increase product recovery.

Biomass, meanwhile, can be used for landscaping, gardening, heat or electricity. Resins and extracts provide cleaning products, medicinal products and adhesives. He also notes that wood pulp is used to produce textiles, such as rayon and viscose, and to manufacture specialty papers and chemicals.

Paper, packaging and even straws can be and are made from wood.

Grobbelaar highlights that wood has been used as a building material for thousands of years. He adds that recent developments in timber manufacturing have enabled mass timber construction.

He says that large building blocks can be premanufactured and assembled on-site with little impact on the environment and communities. These buildings have short construction periods and can store the carbon absorbed during the growth phase of the tree for the life cycle of the building material.

Grobbelaar exclaims that new developments in design for deconstruction emphasise the importance of considering modularity and reuse in the design phase, adding that timber is well suited to this philosophy of reusing materials in different applications or locations. He says by taking this approach, the life cycle of the timber products is increased, and thus the length of time in which it stores carbon increases as well.

“South Africa is fortunate to have a long history of forestry innovations through collaborations by industry, academia, government and society. For example, the Graduate School of Technology Management at UP leads the multidisciplinary York Timbers Chair in wood structural engineering for a sustainable built environment and African bioeconomy. This programme envisions promoting research, education and networking to drive innovation capabilities for the forestry value chain,” notes Grobbelaar.

He asserts that by continuing and further improving these efforts, South Africans can increase the prosperity of the forestry value chain and subsequently provide hope for a better climate future. Grobbelaar says Africa has substantial potential for developing commercial forestry operations, and South Africa can play a leading role in this challenge.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor

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