Multifunctionality is a word which should be considered synonymous with forests.
Wood production, carbon sequestration, biodiversity enhancement, recreation and ecosystem services are a few of the widely acknowledged functions that forests can provide, and the list is constantly expanding.
Just last year, researchers added another function to the lengthy list of purposes for forests: They have found that forests’ biophysical functions move heat and moisture away from the Earth’s surface, achieving a cooling – both locally and globally – of at least half a degree, on top of the cooling effect of carbon sequestration. But how do we make sure that we achieve the right balance of these functions to create the best value?
The first logical step would be to quantify the value. Traditional forest valuation is likely to be somewhat familiar to many readers: it's commonly a function of the amount and value of traditional forest products expected to be yielded at harvesting events (thinning or clearfell). Creating a realistic forecast of yields is essential and relies on both accurate measurement of the current situation and reliable systems for forecasting. Combining LiDAR, drone imagery, and remote sensing with analytical techniques such as machine learning is rapidly becoming best-practice, not just in the academic analysis of forests, but also in forest operations. This provides a strong basis for quantification.
How about quantifying the other forest functions? Carbon sequestration is, of course, the most prominent development at present. Forests are the most affordable and incredibly scaleable approach to sequestering atmospheric carbon. Quantifying carbon sequestration can also use modern digital tools to create accurate measures and forecasts.
For other forest functions, such as biodiversity and ecosystem services, quantification remains a challenge, often requiring intensive fieldwork, and remains to a large extent in the academic realm. But given the global interest in these aspects and – more importantly – the financial interest, it surely cannot be long before we see more operationally viable approaches to quantifying these functions.
Once we understand the values, they should be balanced to provide the maximum value possible through an optimisation process. Timber, carbon and other revenues can be compared with a cashflow analysis based on modelled forest growth and optimised harvesting. A carbon scenario analysis can be applied, for example, to determine the optimal price level for carbon or to assess the impact of different management practices on forest carbon sequestration, all while still considering the impact upon wood flows into traditional forestry value chains.
Quantifying and optimising are only the start of this story, though. The key to ensuring that multifunctional forest benefits are maintained into perpetuity is in realising returns from the forests.
Where traditional forest products may have historically been dominated by the impact of local markets, increasing global demand has seen more and more impact of exports. Models optimising current and future local and global supply-demand balances help us to understand biomass markets more fully and can provide further inputs to enhance the optimisation step in maximising forest value.
When we look at carbon credits and other developing forest functions, they can be considered a truly global market with many consumers looking to platforms such as puro.earth, which represent an inspiring example of the needed system expansion to capture the full potential of forests in climate mitigation. Puro.earth provides CO2 Removal Certificates (CORCs) that are generated, among others, from wooden building elements that store carbon for a minimum of 50 years. Incentivising the production of long-lasting wood products could lead to more efficient raw-material usage by means of cascading use of wood within the wood-processing industry.
However, when large multinationals like Microsoft publish reports discussing the criteria for high-quality carbon- dioxide removal, it is apparent that there is an increasing awareness of the fact that not all forest carbon has the same value. Carbon prices reflect this with large variability, so understanding what factors impact which carbon-credit value is a must. The added functionality of forest projects is often a factor here, given that we are yet to see widely applied quantification and crediting methodologies for other forest functions such as ecosystem services and biodiversity.
Existing and more general land use approaches, such as natural capital accounting, may be another answer to this problem seeking to attribute value to all the functions provided by given land use.
To maintain forests’ multifunctionality in the future, we must fully understand the potential value of all their functions and allow them to be optimised and see the value realised.