In Conversation: New Fibre Sources Are Key to Protecting Forest Ecosystems, Drawing Down Carbon, Rycroft Says
Nicole Rycroft is founder and executive director of Vancouver-based Canopy, and one of this year’s two recipients of the 2020 Climate Breakthrough award, a US$3-million, unrestricted award that supports “the kind of novel and potentially game-changing strategies we need in order to achieve massive greenhouse gas reductions”. In this feature interview, she talks about how to quickly and fundamentally shift supply chains and scale up next-generation alternative fibres as a key step to protect intact, carbon- and biodiversity-rich forest ecosystems.
The Energy Mix: How did Canopy line up this grant, and how do you plan to use it?
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Nicole Rycroft: Unbeknownst to me, I was nominated for this award two years ago. It’s an extensive enough process that the team at Climate Breakthrough probably knows me better than my own mother at this point. The program seeks out a strategist who has the potential to develop game-changing or breakthrough ideas that can help stabilize the climate.
Canopy focuses on conserving the world’s forests, climate, species, and front-line community rights by harnessing the power of the marketplace. We currently rely almost exclusively on forest ecosystems to provide the fibre for packaging, for paper, for clothing, for pulp, for consumption materials. There are 200 million trees that disappear into clothing each year, and that’s set to double in the next decade. Three billion are lost every year to make packaging.
But there are also fibres available that have a much lighter climate and biodiversity footprint, using agriculture residues like straw left over after the food grain harvest, or clothing that would otherwise end up in landfills and degrade into methane. The Climate Breakthrough award will enable me to spend more time on this aspect of our work, scaling up the production of these next-generation solutions.
This is clearly a turnaround decade for our planet, and scientists are clear that we have to achieve ambitious levels of forest conservation if we are to stabilize our climate and biodiversity. To reduce the massive amount of forest fibre currently being used in supply chains, we need a significant shift in infrastructure. We need hundreds of new next-generation mills built around the world that use waste clothing or straw as raw materials. With this award, my colleagues and I will be focused on compressing the timeline it takes to scale these promising disruptive technologies.
The Mix: How will new funding of this magnitude change the organization’s focus and shift what it can do?
Rycroft: The award doesn’t really change Canopy’s focus. What it does do is enable us to bring on additional capacity and have more of my time dedicated to this strategy of breaking down investment barriers that currently exist to scaling next generation solutions. It supercharges our efforts to bring these game-changing solutions to market. We need whole supply chains to shift, and fast, so this really puts the wind in our sails.
The Mix: How do you go about shifting whole supply chains?
Rycroft: Part of it is building market demand. We currently work with 750 large corporate consumers of the forest products industry, companies that use a lot of packaging, paper, or wood-based fibres. By developing cutting-edge environmental policies, they can not only ensure that their own products aren’t originating from large, high-biodiversity forests. They also have the potential to send a very clear message through the supply chain that they don’t want to be contributing to deforestation and forest degradation. In fact, they want to contribute to lasting conservation, and to commercial-scale production of these next-generation solutions that are fundamentally more circular.
Inducing producers to shift their practices is an important part of this. Within the fashion supply chain, we’ve been working over the last seven years to have rayon and viscose producers eliminate any sourcing from high-carbon or high-biodiversity forest landscapes. We’ve been able to shift 52% of viscose production out of those forests, and the first four big producers are now starting to dabble in the development of viscose fabrics that contain next-generation alternatives.
Shifting those markets and supply chains means finding out where the next-generation solutions are, finding these crazy scientists who are sometimes buried in university laboratories but have really game-changing technologies. Then policy and investment are key to enabling the scale-up. And then, voilà, you have a transformed supply chain.
The Mix: What does success look like in combining forest protection with a wider suite of climate solutions?
Rycroft: Forest conservation and other nature-based solutions must be partnered with separate strategies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to be switching to renewables and low-emission transportation and sustainable agriculture. But protecting forests is a huge part of the picture. Scientists estimate that forests represent 30% of the climate solution, and keeping carbon-rich natural forests standing has consistently been recognized as the fastest, cheapest, and most immediate way to stabilize our climate, especially in this decade when we need as much as possible to keep new emissions out of the atmosphere. There are carbon emissions that can so easily be avoided just by not cutting down our natural forest, and that’s going to be a critical part of hitting our 2030 climate targets.
The Mix: How’s Canada doing on this front?
Rycroft: We currently have very poor governance of our forests in Canada. Eighty percent of the logging is in old growth, and despite what we hear from the industry, it’s not sustainable.
There can be a sustainable level of logging, but that only happens after we’ve protected enough of Canada’s and the world’s forests to actually stabilize our climate, maintain biodiversity, and ensure the life support systems that forests provide us with, like precipitation cycles.
The Mix: One of the most consistent points of confusion around climate action is the belief that major carbon polluters can keep doing what they do as long as they plant large number of trees to offset their activities. We know that’s not the role the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sees for nature-based climate solutions. Do you anticipate more and wider campaigning on this issue?
Rycroft: I do, in fact. I’m sure you’re not surprised by that. There are a lot of large, polluting companies in coal, fossil fuels, and even forest companies that have been taking green cover from planting trees. But the IPCC is very clear that planting trees is not enough, and it can’t be used to counter continued carbon-intensive operations.
Keeping natural forests standing and off the cutting block, not being degraded, not being completely clearcut and deforested and converted to something else, is the fastest, most effective way for us to mitigate climate change. But if we plant trees without protecting intact forests, the data is very clear that any climate gain from tree planting will be completely overwhelmed and wiped out by the carbon lost as a result of logging in natural forests. The IPCC and the scientific community are pretty clear that we’re at a point where carbon neutrality is not enough. Actually cutting emissions is a critical component, as well. So we need to conserve and protect natural forests and, alongside that, we plant trees to draw down excess carbon that is already in the atmosphere.
The Mix: We also keep seeing a disconnect between bioeconomy advocates who look at forests as a source of sustainable feedstock and conservation advocates intent on protecting the resource. Meanwhile, the fossil industry stakes its future on demand for plastics and petrochemicals that might be replaced by bio-products, if a truly sustainable supply chain could be mapped out. Is there a pathway to common ground?
Rycroft: As an environmental movement, but also as a society, we need to ensure that we’re not trading one environmental disaster for another. These are complex issues and systems, and we need to be holistic with the solutions we develop. We have a pretty spectacular track record as a species for implementing short-sighted remedies, only to find that they create a slew of other significant issues.
In the European Union, there’s been basically a decade of cutting species and carbon-rich forests to make wood pellets, literally chopping it down to throw it in the furnace. Now the EU is having to review that position because the science is so overwhelmingly clear that the practice is completely counter to climate targets. We see exactly that kind of false dichotomy emerging in packaging, where there’s a serious environmental and societal problem around the use of plastics, but just trading in parrafins for deforestation is not the solution.
There are three billion trees that disappear into pizza boxes, shipping boxes, and other forms of packaging every year, many of them coming from ancient and endangered forests, and the volume is growing quite aggressively with the shift to e-retail. Companies and governments feel they need to respond to the plastics issue, which is of course is an important concern. But sustainable packaging is not a binary choice between paper and plastics.
We need to address single-use. There are alternative feedstocks. There are hundreds of millions of tonnes of straw that are burned each year by farmers, just in North America, that release massive amounts of air pollution and carbon. Those are fibres where farmers could earn value-added revenue and supply raw material for pulp mills to make packaging. The very first straw pulp mill was just built last year in Washington state, and there’s absolutely no reason for that not to be replicated both across the United States and here in Canada. We have a world’s first pulp mill that will draw exclusively on old clothing that would otherwise degrade in landfills, being built now in Sweden. We have the solutions. We just need to scale them.
The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Rycroft: This award is an endorsement and brings credibility to a vision that, even five or 10 years ago, people thought was crazy. So it’s the adage of ‘never say never’. We need to be thinking outside the box we’re currently in. That box could be made from very eco-friendly, straw fibre, using 70% less energy and 90% less water and chemicals.
The other point is that Climate Breakthrough is one of the largest environmental awards there is, and with less than 5% of charitable giving going to the environment, I hope this attracts other philanthropic partners into the climate and environmental space. There’s obviously a lot of room for others to be making big contributions.