An open letter to Bill Gates

Source: Finnish Sawmills Association

DEAREST BILL (may I call you Bill?)

I read in a leading Finnish daily newspaper about your interview, which was related to your new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”. I gather you are worried about the environmental affairs, so am I. We both are from the same generation and it seems we are equally concerned what the shape of the Globe we are leaving behind to our children and grandchildren.

In your new book you correctly state that the emissions into the atmosphere are the main reason for the global warming. Leaving some doubters aside it seems there is a large consensus about the negative role of emissions.

I gather that your own carbon footprint is – for obvious reasons – rather big, but you are paying compensations to offset it. At first glance this is positive, but do you really think that this kind of widely used modern indulgence trade makes sense at all? With this system in place a polluting enterprise can just carry on by paying the compensation – at the end of the day these are then just like any business costs, which will be paid for by the final consumer. In your opinion, what has been the real effect of this indulgence trade? I would also be keen to hear your comment of the moral justification of it.  

I understand you have stated you have read everything about the climate change. When browsing through the newspaper article I could not help thinking that perhaps, being a very busy person, you have still missed some relevant information. In my opinion there are already now solutions available to help to combat the climate change and other Global issues. May I highlight a few of them…

You say that the core point for the Global emission problem is to reduce input and cost of the production of “environmentally friendly” concrete, steel, plastic, and energy. In my opinion this approach just literally cements the use of current building and construction methods and style – at the expense other options, which have been proven to be environmentally friendlier.

As the annual Global emission impact of concrete production alone is around 7 per cent, we clearly have a problem here. If concrete were a state, it’s emissions would be third largest after the USA and China. 

I am not blindly for or against any building materials, we just need to put best materials to most suitable use. When it comes to construction materials suppose you know that there is only one truly renewable material available: wood.

On top of being renewable, when manufacturing construction components wood-based products require only a fraction of the energy input compared with concrete, steel or plastic. From the technical perspective, modern Engineered Wood Products can easily substitute other materials. On top of this wood also effectively binds carbon.  

Bill, as you know there is some forest lost for instance in the Amazonas. This is primarily because of increasing food production and mining in the area. Here in Finland we have large forests, too, but the story here is quite different:

About 75 per cent of our land area is covered with forests and the volume of forests is highest since the national forest inventory was started in 1923. Our Nordic welfare state has been built on our “green gold”. Our well-known education system, which also includes free university education, and our high level of social welfare have been built to large degree on sustainably conducted forestry.

Finland exports today 80 per cent of forest industry’s output. On a Global scale we are a major player when it comes to exports of paper, wood, products and plywood. We have been in this business for centuries and as a businessman you surely understand that this would not have succeeded without proper planning. Our first forestry laws – aiming at sustainability and long-term future of the industry – date back to mid-1800s. Those laws were primarily to protect the balance of forests on the eve of new, top notch inventions.

We did overcome the threat of steam engine then – and further improvements in technology – and today we are in a situation, where our forest industry grows, but so do forests and our carbon sink in the forests. Today our forests grow 20 per cent more than our annual wood consumption is. This surplus is added to our forest balance every year. 

All our forests and forestry operations are regulated. Dominant felling system in Finland is thinning, which takes place in about two per cent of our forests annually.  Regeneration or final cuttings – on average the size of two football pitches – are a minority, with less than one per cent of the forest area. We tend forests and cut trees in order to ensure future growth of trees and carbon sink.

Finnish forests are not same age, single specie wood fields, which are clear cut from a hug area in one go. Oh yes, we have also an area the size of Belgium fully outside commercial forest operations.

Two thirds of our forests are privately owned, by people like you and me, who obviously look after their possessions. By law after forest operations the seller plants five saplings for each felled tree. That is 150 million saplings a year, not bad for a nation of less than 6 million people!

As I said despite Finland’s sizable forest industry our carbon sink is doing alright. On top of that Finland is one of the few countries in the world that has managed to reduce its emissions.

Bill, you also talk about innovations. You have a great story to tell how one can spring from a garage to a Global player and you therefore understand how new innovations can make the world better. With this letter I just want to highlight to you that we already have environmentally sound, wood-based construction solutions to combat the climate change. However, that is not the whole story yet.

There are lots of new products, which have been developed from wood and mostly from the byproduct streams of wood processing. Many of these can also play a role in our joint quest for better world. A good example is the clothes business, which uses mostly oil derivatives or cotton. Wood fibers are here already, offering a sounder ecological platform

Cotton is grown largely in areas, which are not most suited for that type of agriculture. In Egypt only a few per cent of the land area is suitable for agriculture, yet in that populous country a large part of the land has been dedicated for pesticide cotton production – not for food production the country so badly needs.

In Egypt, and in the Southern states of USA, the issue with cotton growing is also the lack of water. It has been calculated that the production process of an average T shirt requires 2.500 liters of water. That is more than you and I consume as drinking water, in a year. Needless to say, our naturally growing forest stock sounds like an environmentally sound alternative to replace both oil based fibers and cotton.

Finally, you state that if we have not within next ten years renewed our concrete and steel production you will become pessimistic. And that there is no time left.

Products like concrete and steel surely should have potential to reduce their emissions. However, why wait another ten years, when we have a good tool to tackle the issue already here and now? Finnish State Research body made a life cycle analysis that with two identical apartment buildings, one made of wood and the other of concrete, the wooden one’s emissions are 10 per cent less.

Knowing the construction volumes and emissions think of the potential Global impact of this, starting today, not in ten years’ time…

Bill, I have been an admirer of yours since 1990s. With your products I have been able to work more effectively, while your products have improved my life also in many other ways. I am convinced that you could also contribute more to our common goal of reducing emissions and overall improving the quality of life by contributing to further research in our field.

If you are interested, I would be delighted to have a chat with you. Teams meeting perhaps?


Esa Mikkonen

Senior Lecturer, Wood Technology
LAB University, Lahti, Finland

+358 44 708 5161

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