Africa is rated as the least contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions but is the continent that suffers the most debilitating effects of climate change, with a particularly negative impact on rain-fed agriculture.
In South Africa, Sappi owns and leases 399,996 hectares of land. Like all other agricultural crops, the trees in Sappi’s plantations are negatively impacted by climate change. The situation is expected to exacerbate: Projected increases in temperature and changes in rainfall could result in some areas not being climatically suitable for a specific genotype, with other areas potentially becoming climatically unsuitable for forestry.
While Sappi has developed climate-smart forestry practices and drought resistant genotypes, there is a need to progress climate change solutions. This is particularly important given that plantation forestry is a significant contributor to the South African economy and that it helps to stimulate growth and development as set out in the Masterplan for the Commercial Forestry Sector in South Africa 2020–2025.
The development of forestry-related climate change solutions took a major step forward with the launch of the Sappi Chair in Climate Change and Plantation Sustainability at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) on 05 June 2023.
Sappi’s sponsorship of the Research Chair aligns with the company’s commitment to UN SDG13: Climate Action, and with their drive to generate technical and operational solutions which mitigate against climate change risks, as well as to enhance reporting on carbon emissions, climate change and sustainability.
Professor Mary Scholes, who is an internationally recognised authority on tree physiology and climate change and who is affiliated with the research platform in the Wits School of Animal, Plants and Environmental Sciences, will act as the Research Chair. Through the Research Chair, Professor Scholes will identify critical research needs and develop research outputs related to climate change. Given increasing global pressure to account accurately for greenhouse gas emissions from forests, land and agriculture, she will also lead the development of capacity to manipulate and interpret climate modelling data.
Climate change is one of the university’s eight research priorities. Sappi and other industry members already have an association with the Wits Global Change Institute which began in 2020 and which aimed to further understanding of the impact of climate change on South African forestry in the short-, medium- and long-term.
The launch took place at the junction of three important developments: Firstly, it was part of the ongoing Wits centenary celebrations which honour the university’s work in changing and shaping society for the better. Secondly, the launch happened at the same time as the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) in Durban (South Africa), where one of the key topics for discussion was the impact of climate change on the African continent. Finally, it occurred on the same day as World Environment Day, with the key theme of beating plastic pollution and transitioning to a circular economy. This theme is particularly meaningful for Sappi, given their portfolio of a broad range of woodfibre-based sustainable solutions as an alternative to fossil fuel-based, non-renewable packaging across many product segments.
“Because forestry is a long-term crop, the industry needs to know well in advance where to direct their resources and investment and needs the most accurate climate models to rely on,” says Scholes.
Speaking at the launch, Dr Tracy Wessels, Sappi Group Head Investor Relations and Sustainability, commented, “The creation of this Chair demonstrates Sappi’s commitment to building a thriving world through strong partnerships, supporting innovation and investing in future research capabilities. We are looking forward to progressing our understanding of, and actions related to, climate change through replicable, workable methodologies flowing from our sponsorship of the Wits Research Chair. Our hope is that the climate solutions generated by Wits will not only benefit Sappi, but also the South African forestry industry and the African agricultural sector as a whole.”