Researchers and field scientists share forest knowledge with IUFRO 2024 participants, photo courtesy of IUFRO

What will forests look like in 2050?

What we learned at IUFRO Stockholm 2024

Each year, the world loses 10 million hectares of forests – roughly an area the size of Iceland or South Korea.

Here on ThinkLandscape, we talk a lot about conserving and restoring forests, and for good reason. Forests provide a vast array of resources to keep our fridges stocked up, our air clean and pure, and our global economy running.

That means if we lose our forests, we’ll lose all of the services they offer, from timber to biodiversity to clean air and water.

But by the same token, we can’t conserve every tree in the world. One of our biggest challenges is to determine how to sustainably manage forests so that future generations can enjoy the same benefits for centuries to come.

That was one of the main themes at the 26th IUFRO World Congress, held last week in Stockholm, Sweden, which brought together thousands of scientists, practitioners, students, policymakers, businesses and NGOs at the world’s largest event on sustainable forestry this year.

From the forest bioeconomy to the AI revolution, here are five key predictions on the future of forests we heard.

Photo courtesy of IUFRO

Forests will power the circular bioeconomy

It’s no secret that we can’t afford to keep squandering resources by digging them up and throwing them away after just a single use.

The circular economy aims to remedy this by designing a closed-loop system that keeps resources and products in use indefinitely.

This increasingly popular framework has since been merged with another concept, known as bioeconomy, to form the circular bioeconomy – a circular economy that emphasizes the responsible use of the Earth’s biological resources.

So, where do forests fit into this puzzle?

“Many of us see a way forward to protect forests by devising a new forest economy, one that values the full services of our forests,” said Éliane Ubalijoro, CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF, at the Congress’ opening ceremony.

“That includes both the capital they represent in the face of climate change and the value they hold for people who rely on forests in so many ways, without even knowing it and without paying for their true value.”

But what this new forest economy would look like is still the subject of vigorous debate, said Anne Toppinen, a professor of forest economics and business at the University of Helsinki, who pointed out that there are a range of different and often competing discourses around the circular bioeconomy.

“How can we make this transformation to a forest-based bioeconomy?” she posed. “Some drivers are more fundamental: changes to the system structure, mental models and the values and beliefs of individuals and at a societal level.”

Iufro 2024 Congress Opening Ceremony, photo courtesy of IUFRO

Urban forests will be pivotal

Most of the world’s population now lives in cities, and any forest-based circular bioeconomy must make room for urban forests – especially in the Global South, where most of the world’s urban population growth will be concentrated.

And yet, there has been hardly any interest from academia or policymakers in building sustainable cities in these parts of the world, according to Harini Nagendra, an urban ecologist at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India.

“For very long, we have excluded the idea of urban forestry, especially in the Global South,” she said. “Without forests, there can be no human well-being in cities.”

Most studies on urban sustainability have focused on the Global North and on the issues of biodiversity and recreation, but cities in the Global South have a different set of priorities, such as climate resilience, water and livelihoods, Nagendra said.

“Stockholm is not Ibadan. Stockholm is not Bangalore. The social and cultural contexts are very different.”

Several speakers and exhibitors also pointed to the promise of wood as a building material, with successful examples from the region, including Sara Kulturhus, one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, located in Skellefteå in northern Sweden, and Lighthouse Joensuu, the tallest wooden apartment block in Finland.

Unlike concrete and steel, which require large amounts of carbon emissions to produce, wood is a carbon sink – and it can be cost-effective, durable and fireproof, too. Some studies have even shown that spending time in a wooden building can benefit our mental health.

Photo courtesy of IUFRO

The AI revolution will transform forestry

We all know AI is the next big thing, and it may or may not be coming for our jobs. But what could it mean for forests?

Exhibitors showcased a wide variety of AI and robotics solutions at the Congress, from drones to autonomous harvesters to intelligent wildlife management systems.

Swedish company FLOX Robotics presented an AI-powered system that keeps wildlife away from young forests, roads, railway lines and even airports. Using drone imagery and algorithms to identify wildlife, it emits tailored sounds such as those of predators to deter them – thus protecting forests from damage and protecting both animals and people from collisions.

Meanwhile, another Swedish tech startup, AirForestry, put one of its forest thinning drones on display. These autonomous aircraft are used to harvest trees from the air to reduce the need for roads and prevent damage to trees and soil caused by traditional machinery like harvesters and forwarders.

It remains to be seen how these new technologies will evolve: will they revolutionize forestry the way cars revolutionized transport, or could they become just another set of fancy gadgets?

Photo courtesy of IUFRO

The next plant pandemic is coming

Between COVID-19, bird flu and mpox, infectious diseases have captured the headlines for much of the decade so far. But some of the biggest threats to our well-being might not be zoonoses, but rather plant diseases.

And much like the COVID-19 pandemic, many of today’s predominant plant diseases have spread through global travel and trade.

But that’s only half the story. The other half is the large-scale planting of non-native trees for commercial forestry.

Unlike native trees, non-native trees have no natural predators when introduced to a new region, meaning they can attain much higher growth rates – making them lucrative assets. Some examples include acacia in South Africa, eucalyptus in Brazil and Douglas fir in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon – known as enemy release – doesn’t last forever.

“We’ve been seeing a steady increase in both insects and diseases starting around the time of the Industrial Revolution,” said Andrew Liebhold, a research entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “During my career, I’ve seen an increasing concentration on non-native organisms.”

Liebhold explained that non-native trees can be especially susceptible to pathogens as they lack co-evolved defenses – in other words, they lack immunity to the same pathogens that native trees have been exposed to and thus built for millennia.

This makes them vulnerable in two ways: native insects can expand their population range to prey on these non-native trees, and non-native insects can also follow their hosts to their new home.

It’s no surprise, then, that the U.S. Forest Service has seen a steady increase in the number of non-native insects and diseases in recent decades – and especially since the late 2000s.

Photo courtesy of IUFRO

We need a just transition for forests

Throughout the week, we learned that forests have a vital place in humanity’s present and future. But how can we ensure that we manage them equitably and inclusively?

At the global level, a small minority of us are consuming far more than their fair share of resources – and that consumption must decrease to ensure that the rest of the world has enough left to attain a decent standard of living.

“The global middle class is growing, and this is something we cannot and should not stop,” said Martin Forsén, CEO of Paraguayan forestry enterprise SilviPar.

“But what we can do is make sure that this consumption is sustainable.”

For Forsén, a key catalyst for this is sustainable investment – especially in forestry, given its potential to create jobs across a wide range of skill levels, which can grow as the sector grows across the Global South.

At the national, regional and local levels, too, inequities continue to persist in forestry.

Gender and racial discrimination remain rife in the sector, according to a global survey of forestry students presented by Mika Rekola, a lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Rekola’s team also found a lack of awareness of forest-related career opportunities among female and ethnic minority students, as well as few role models.

Forestry education has a long way to go in terms of promoting both knowledge diversity and social diversity, including incorporating Indigenous and traditional knowledge and building a culture of inclusivity.

“We need to go back to our education system and make sure that women have equal access to it, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Juliette Biao, director of the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat.

“There is no glass ceiling for women in the forestry sector. What a man can do, a woman is able to do.”




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