As the world continued to struggle with the health and economic impacts of a global pandemic, it became glaringly apparent at the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow this month (November 2021) that cutting emissions of greenhouse gases drastically would have significant benefits for the health of people everywhere, as well as the planet.
Recognition of the nexus between climate and the economy, forests and human health, deforestation and food production, energy and the environment, has become increasingly obvious, as has the need put in place investment and plans to deal with these connected issues and opportunities.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a special report on the eve of COP26 which established inseparable links between climate and human health, drawing attention to air pollution from forest fires, harmful agricultural burning practices, as well as the burning of fossil fuels.
Reversing biodiversity loss and cutting deforestation came out of COP26 as major positive signs of recognition and change, along with the decision to protect at least 30% of all land and sea by 2030.
Let’s consider the role forests play in all this
Cutting down natural forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change impacts, as trees absorb about a third of all planet-heating carbon emissions produced worldwide, but forests also release the carbon they store when trees rot or are burned.
Forests also provide food and livelihoods, produce clean air and water, support human health, as well as being an essential habitat for wildlife, regulate rainfall and offer flood protection.
It’s abundantly clear that not only are forests critically important for our climate, but also for biodiversity, for rural and indigenous communities, and for an estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide who depend directly on forests for their livelihoods.
“Nature-based solutions, such as those provided by sustainable forest management, are powerful allies in addressing societal challenges like climate change, delivering benefits for both the environment and human well-being,” Mr Ben Gunneberg, CEO of PEFC International said when COP26 announced plans to seriously deal with deforestation globally.
As the world’s leading forest certification system, he sees that PEFC has an important role to play “in the toolbox needed to fight climate change, by promoting the sustainable management of the world’s forests and the use of wood products as a renewable raw material”.
Forests also contribute to the food security and nutritional needs of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Forest foods, such as seeds, nuts, honey, fruits, mushrooms, insects and other forest animals, have been an important part of rural diets for millennia.
Sustainable forest management helps protect these forests, and all they give us, by giving them value and thereby keeping trees standing.
When you buy certified sustainable furniture, for example, you’re helping to protect those forests, as well as bringing a meaningful part of them into your home.
Wooden buildings have a positive effect on health and wellbeing
An increasing amount of evidence also shows that the benefits of wood as a construction material go beyond sustainability. Wooden buildings have a positive effect on health and wellbeing, and foster creativity.
As long as the timber used for buildings is responsibly sourced, and sustainable supply chains are in place, we can continue to enjoy the many benefits that wood brings to the home.
Wooden buildings definitely appear to be better if you want to be more creative, more productive and to stay healthy at the same time.
Stora Enso, PEFC International stakeholder member headquartered in Helsinki, Finland - a leading global provider of renewable solutions in packaging, biomaterials, wooden construction and paper -produced a whitepaper setting out the health and wellbeing benefits of wooden buildings. It is based on scientific research data gathered by a research team at the Technical University of Munich.
The study shows that wooden buildings are also better if you want to have lower stress levels, lower blood pressure and a lower heart-rate. Added to that, they can improve the immune system and, as a material, wood is also good at preventing viruses from multiplying.
The evidence is wide-ranging and has been gathering for more than 20 years, but it all points in the same direction. People feel better, work better and perform better when they are living and working in wooden buildings.
Forests have healing powers in more ways than one
Whether trees stay in their natural surroundings or wood is used in the home, forests have special healing powers in more ways than one.
Of the 3000 plants identified by the United States' National Cancer Institute as active against cancer cells, 70% come from rainforests. In total, more than 25% of the medicines we use originate in rainforest plants.
Only if we use our forests, and manage them in a sustainable way, can we make sure they can stay that way, and we can continue to benefit from their healing powers.
Believe it or not, there are even more ways we can value forests – trees in their natural environment – for their contribution to the health of people on earth, as well as environmental benefits for the planet.
How about forest bathing? Whether you call it a fitness trend or a mindfulness practice (or a bit of both), National Geographic magazine tells us that the term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”).
It offers an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and it inspires residents - and visitors - to reconnect with, and protect, the country’s forests.
Whether it’s in a forest in some far-off land, a rainforest in Southeast Asia, or even the botanic gardens closer to home, a walk in the park - or even forest bathing - is the “nature therapy” we all need at this time.
As we absorb the healing properties of forests for ourselves, we can also marvel at the multiple benefits that trees provide – as fruits of the forest and furniture for the home – all contributing to human health and the health of the planet.