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More on the IPPC and the forest industry

Two months ago, we commented on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the scientific basis for the recent investigatory work on climate change.  We mentioned that the IPCC’s follow-up report on predicted impacts of climate change and possible adaptive measures would be published in spring next year, with a synthesis of all the 2013/2014 reports in fall 2014. 

Recently, the “Summary for Policymakers” for this spring report was leaked, so I reviewed it for aspects related to the forest industries.

The report is based on four alternative scenarios for greenhouse gases emissions, (known as RCP2.4, RCP4.5,  RCP6,  and RCP8.5) of which the middle two seem most likely, assuming that growth in population and energy use continues as it has for the past 30 years or so. 

As usual with IPCC reports, much of the text focuses on the negative aspects of developments in climate while seeming to omit or soft-pedal the positives.  For example, one graphic shows a considerable increase in fish catches as the world warms up, but there is no mention of that good news in the text, only warnings of food shortages due to challenges to farming.

The most obvious issue for forests is that while the report summarizes reports of trees dying on the Southern edges of Northern forests due to heat and drought, it makes no mention of the potential for increased tree growth further North as the climate warms up.

The report states, “Tree mortality and associated forest dieback will occur in many regions in the next one to three decades, with forest dieback posing risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality and economic activity.”

There seems to be a consensus that the change in temperature through the rest of this century will be somewhat greater in the northern latitudes than near the equator.  Rainfall is also predicted to increase in northern forest regions, so this should help tree growth in the extensive forests of Canada and Russia. 

On the other hand, a drier climate is predicted for the tropical regions. Since forest growth there is generally limited by rainfall, this may swing the economics of pulp production back to the North.

The alternative scenarios for energy use and carbon dioxide emissions seem rather pessimistic to me, particularly the high-end RCP8.5 one.  Generally, they assume that most of the increase in energy consumption will be in the form of coal, which is, of course, the worst CO2 emitter per unit energy.  Given the rapid expansion of fracking to produce cheap natural gas, and the increasing reluctance for people to work in coal mines as their standard of living rises, it seems unlikely to me that coal will develop more rapidly than the economy.

Many of the mitigative measures proposed are rather indefinite, such as education on the significance of climate change, modification of social trends, etc.  Of the more practical potential measures, increasing forestation figures fairly strongly.

Although some of these issues are positive for the pulp and paper industry, the main impression I gleaned from reading this latest report is that the deeper one delves into climate change issues, the less definitive the predictions appear.  The scientific issues are extremely complicated, and the complexity of the social/political aspects of implementing any changes is mind-boggling.

All this suggests that the climate change situation is likely to be more positive than negative for the pulp and paper industry, but with lots of uncertainty.  Actions of our governments in the name of climate change, which are not likely to be rational on such a complex issue, will have the key impact on the industry.

The report discussed is, of course, an unofficial draft, which will be revised on the basis of various government comments over the next few months.  Even when published, it is probable that most government agencies will await the third report and the synthesis of all three reports scheduled for fall 2014 before initiating action. 


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