Building a sustainable future

Building a sustainable future: growing Africa’s timber for tomorrow’s housing boom 

Africa stands at a crossroads, facing unprecedented challenges due to extreme population growth and rapid urbanization. Particularly in cities like Lagos, Nigeria, which is expected to host a staggering 60 million inhabitants by 2050. The magnitude of this demographic shift necessitates a rethink of construction practices. Our built environment is responsible for 40% of global CO2 emissions, with steel and concrete as the main contributors (find more information here). Considering the scale of construction needed in Africa, this one factor would increase the likelihood of surpassing the +2 degrees threshold as agreed in the Paris Climate Accord tremendously. The need for a sustainable alternative becomes imperative. Incremental steps are not enough: we need transformative solutions. The large-scale application of timber constructions is a solution to mitigate the environmental impact of the construction boom ahead. To meet the needed volume of timber in the future, we need to start planting trees now. At scale. 

Built by nature 

Wood construction is increasingly being recognized as a viable alternative, even for high-rise buildings. Thanks to the utilization of innovative processing techniques such as Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) and Glued-Laminated Timber (GLT), it is now possible to efficiently and cost-effectively construct tall buildings using wood. These techniques revolutionized the construction industry by enabling the creation of structurally complete and fire-resistant timber panels that can be assembled to form robust building structures. This breakthrough has not only expanded the application of wood in construction but has also opened new possibilities for sustainable urban development. 

The 3S model, produced by the Climate Smart Forest Economy Program, provides inspiration to maximize the climate benefits of forests and forest products. This framework provides a comprehensive and integrated way of considering and balancing the various aspects of the carbon cycle: sink (the drawdown and retention of carbon dioxide in the forest), storage (the carbon dioxide embedded in materials), and substitution (the avoidance of emissions by replacing carbon-intensive materials). 

Wood as a sustainable resource  

Wood products from Afforestation, Reforestation, and Revegetation (ARR) projects, and Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) fit within the principles of the low carbon ‘circular economy’, an economic model in which resources are renewable sustainably managed, recovered, and reused. Wood is also one of the few construction materials that can be grown naturally and stores carbon for the duration of its lifetime, having a positive impact on the carbon balance. We need to move towards a more forest-based economy, meaning more forests under better forest management, with a focus on wood production and carbon storage in combination with social and environmental benefits.  

As Africa has both the available lands, suitable climate for growth, and potential workforce, it makes sense to start creating the forest plantations now that will deliver the construction materials in the future. This can be blended with nature-restoration forests to create a landscape approach that benefits nature, people, and climate. 

Carbon credits as instrument to bridge the finance gap 

Financing a tree plantation presents significant challenges, trees need time to grow so plantations need slow capital. Albeit the IRR is often good, the payback period is by definition long-term. This scares off investors. A way to bridge the gap between the – often high – upfront investments and the period timber revenues start to flow, is the use of carbon credits. This mechanism serves multiple functions: providing early income for forest projects, enabling local communities to benefit from sharing mechanisms, and allowing buyers to offset their ongoing carbon emissions through the captured CO2. 

Holistic view required 

The challenge we need to tackle is that many actors have a limited view of what is needed. For instance, many financial institutions still see forestry investments as too risky, especially in Africa. This might sometimes be the case, yet not investing in carbon capture and storage (CCS) solutions will present an even greater (financial) risk in the future. Their risk-return models need to incorporate these risks.  

Investors and corporates that do provide carbon finance, sometimes shy away from plantation forestry projects. There is a preference for natural restoration forest projects as this has greater value for biodiversity. This sets the stage for a critical conversation about striking a balance between nature restoration goals and the demand for production forests. In a landscape approach, there is room for both nature restoration and the production of forests. These can consist of mixed native species and contribute to the biodiversity of the landscape. And conversely, if we do not create forest plantations, the needed timber will likely be unsustainably harvested from natural forests. 

Let’s understand and seize the opportunity 

The need for a paradigm shift is clear – Africa must embrace the large-scale application of wood for construction as one of the solutions to prevent a climate crisis. To make this transition, there is a call for large-scale production forests, dedicated to supplying locally sourced construction materials. Carbon financing is needed to establish these plantations at scale, to get these projects through the financial ‘valley of death.’   

I’m calling for increased investments in sustainable Afforestation, Reforestation, and Revegetation (ARR) and Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) projects in Africa, that benefit biodiversity, climate, and the future of the local construction industry. I urge investors, policymakers, and broader stakeholders to join forces in driving a sustainable future where timber constructions play a crucial role in mitigating the environmental impact of Africa’s population growth and urbanization.

Michel Schuurman