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Ditch metal and plastic and turn to wood to save the planet, says UN

Workers work at a teak parquet factory in Yangon, Myanmar

For design enthusiasts worried about forests being axed for furniture, this may come as a bit of a surprise: buying a table made of wood instead of metal or plastic could significantly help cut carbon emissions, according to a UN agency.

Furniture, floors and doors made out of wood require less energy to produce than aluminium or plastic, and on top of that wood continues to store carbon for years, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

Carbon stored by wood products offsets nearly all of the greenhouse gas emissions related to their production, FAO said in a report published this week.

“It might be counter-intuitive (to use wood) because if wood comes from illegal logging or irresponsible deforestation you will be damaging ecosystems and habitats,” Rene Castro-Salazar, FAO assistant director-general for forestry, said.

“But if you are able to produce firewood, a dining table or construction materials from sustainable sources, you’re … replacing CO2 intense products for better ones,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If (wood) is extracted in a sustainable way then you can do it forever,” he said on Wednesday.

Forests play an important role in storing carbon emissions in leaves, branches and soil. Meanwhile, deforestation and forest degradation account for up to 12 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, FAO said.

Materials such as concrete, plastic or aluminium, require a lot of energy from fossil fuels to produce. Even recycling plastic is not as environmentally friendly as some people may think.

“When you are recycling plastic you use too much energy,” said Nadege Nzoyem, Central Africa manager of the conservation non-profit Rainforest Alliance.

“Wood will turn into organic material if you just leave it outside,” she said by phone from Cameroon on Thursday.

FAO estimates that using recycled wood in construction and then burning it as fuel could lead to a reduction in carbon emissions by up to 135 million tonnes a year, which is more than Belgium’s total carbon emissions each year.

Castro-Salazar said that one of the main challenges in promoting the use of wood is to ensure that wooden products, just like other products, come from sustainable sources.

“You can have the most beautiful shoes in the world but if you don’t check and they are produced with forced or child labour then you’re damaging the society and the people,” he said.

“You should be sure that the brand you’re buying is behaving responsibly in terms of the social and labour conditions,” he added.

Nadege Nzoyem said certification systems that allow buyers to verify where wood comes from and that it is sourced in a way that is not damaging forests were key.

“The only way we have (to ensure wood comes from a sustainable source) is when you see a logo of a certification scheme like FSC,” she said, referring to the Forest Stewardship Council, an international not-for-profit organisation.

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