Carbon matters at Ngodwana Energy

Talking to Tyrone Hawkes, Sappi Southern Africa’s Vice President for Strategy and Business Development about Ngodwana Energy, a 25 MW biomass energy plant at Ngodwana Mill in which Sappi Southern Africa holds a 30% stake. The plant, which came on stream in March 2022, uses biomass recovered from surrounding plantations and screened waste material from the mill production process.

Q: Tyrone, the biomass plant at Ngodwana Mill in Mpumalanga has caused some debate amongst stakeholders about the sustainability of Sappi’s plantations and their impact on biodiversity in general and in particular, the carbon issue linked to biomass removal. What are your views on the biodiversity issue?

Tyrone: Like most crops – apples, sugar, maize to mention just a few – grown by humans, at the stand level, industrial plantations have a negative impact on biodiversity. This is because they replace the natural vegetation cover with a single genus of exotic trees.

However, when you look at the bigger picture – at the plantation level, then it’s a different picture because plantations comprise a mosaic of stands at different age classes and species with extensive corridors of unplanted areas. At the plantation level, about 30% of the land is managed for the conservation of natural habitats and the biodiversity they contain. This offset for conservation by the South African forest industry far exceeds the international norm of 10%. Sappi alone owns seven proclaimed nature reserves and 160 other Important Conservation Areas (ICAs) that are managed for the important conservation values they contain.

Q: Do you disagree with the view that plantations are a ‘high impact’ land use resembling commodity agriculture?

Tyrone: Yes, I do. While industrial plantations are tree farms managed with the intention to maximise production, they have a much lower impact on the environment compared to commodity agriculture. Increasing production on part of our landholdings (sustainable intensification) allows us to manage approximately 30% of our landholdings for biodiversity.

It’s also worth noting that intensive plantation management has much less impact on soil resources compared to agriculture. This is because trees are not harvested annually like other crops and, compared with the harvesting of agricultural crops, only small amounts of nutrients are removed with the harvesting of timber.

Q: There have been allegations that plantation forestry in South Africa has a particularly negative impact on the grassland biome?

Tyrone: In the grassland biome in South Africa, forestry plantations cover less than 3% of the biome. Plantations also only make up 18% of the grassland that has been transformed by agricultural crops. Forest owners own approximately 500,000 hectares (ha) of unplanted grassland, some of which is the best example of moist grassland in the country. In partnership with the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s grassland stewardship programme, forest owners have identified 37 sites comprising 45,000 ha which either have been or in the process of being, formally proclaimed as protected areas and nature reserves.

Q: Is it true that timber plantations act like ‘nutrient mines’ by extracting fertility from the soil?

Tyrone: The nutrient requirement of trees is an order of magnitude lower than that of agricultural crops. Being deeper rooted, the trees actually function as nutrient pumps, bringing nutrients from deep soil layers to the surface.

Q: What is your view on the statement that ‘timber plantations hold little more carbon, on average, than the land cleared to plant them’?

Tyrone: This statement might be true where pristine natural forest – like forest in the Amazon – is cut down and replaced by plantation forest. However, the South African forest industry has not done this and the forest certification systems we use do not allow the conversion of natural forest to plantation.

In fact, in South Africa most afforestation has taken place on degraded grasslands or old agricultural lands and industrial plantations have increased the carbon stocks in living biomass from 25 tons CO2e/ha to 170 tons CO2e/ha on average.

Q: Sappi’s plantations are regularly planted and harvested. Does the regular harvesting negatively impact on carbon stocks?

Tyrone:  We harvest what we grow and replant, so that carbon stocks remain stable. South African plantations have sequestered 203 million tonnes CO2e (tCO2e) and annually produce timber that contains more than 17 million tCO2e. In Sappi-specific terms, the total standing carbon stock in live biomass is 38.25 million (tCO2e).

Q: Sappi maintains that burning biomass from sustainably managed forests or plantations is carbon neutral and hence, in other words, Sappi does not account for CO2 emissions from the combustion of biomass. Please comment.

Tyrone: This statement is incorrect. Due to carbon accounting difficulties within the IPCC’s AFOLU (Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use) sector, the current practice is that the land owner reports all CO2 emissions when trees are harvested. This reflects in the carbon stock change on the land. So, when a tree is harvested, all CO2 is deemed to be immediately emitted to the atmosphere although this is not strictly the case. As the emission has already been accounted, the CO2 in the wood or wood residue is deemed to be carbon neutral.

Q: Any closing thoughts on Ngodwana Energy?

Tyrone: We believe that the project is highly positive. It is the first biomass project under the South African Government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme which is aimed at moving the country’s economy away from coal. This in turn aligns with Sappi’s decarbonisation journey and commitment to UN SDG7: Renewable and Clean Energy and UN SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production. In keeping with our commitment to UN SDG15: Life on Land, we view maintaining and enhancing forest soil function as a crucial component of sustainable forest management, because soil is the foundation of the forest system. Forest management that maintains or increases carbon stocks, while also producing timber, fibre and energy, contributes to climate change mitigation by storing carbon on land and replacing carbon-intensive materials and fossil fuels (SDG13: Climate Action). Finally, the project has created jobs during construction and ongoing jobs during biomass collection in line with SDG8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Overall, the project aligns with our vision of a thriving world.