Driving impact through collaboration: When business and science join forces

28 June, 2023
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Driving impact through collaboration: When business and science join forces

Alexander Buck and Dirk Längin discuss the importance of partnership in tackling climate change across the forestry value chain.

Joining forces to address the impact of the climate crisis has never been more important. The physical impacts of climate change are undeniable, negatively impacting forests in many parts of the world – forests that are vital for human health, wellbeing, biodiversity and the economy – and only through collaboration can we collectively make a positive difference. Since 2021, Mondi and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) have partnered to establish TEAMING UP 4 FORESTS, a science-business platform that aims to better understand climate change impact on forests in Europe and the long-term wood fibre supply security.

Two years after the launch, Alexander Buck, Executive Director of IUFRO, and Dirk Längin, Group Head of Fibre Sourcing at Mondi, share their thoughts on progress to date, and what the future of collaboration between science and business holds.

A platform for science and business to collaborate on tackling climate change. What was the inspiration? Aren't science and business sometimes seen as two different worlds?

Dirk: I’d say no. Mondi and IUFRO have enjoyed a long-standing relationship. Engaging with science and investing in research has always been a critical element of our business operations, guiding our approach to sustainable forest management. Through our partnership with IUFRO, we wanted to better combine our business expertise with scientific research and evidence, to help us to make the most informed decisions on how to better navigate the complexity of climate-related issues facing our industry.

Alexander: Exactly, Dirk. The private sector plays a vital role in addressing the sustainability challenges we face. At IUFRO we truly believe that science can have maximum impact by focusing on the needs of all stakeholders. So, finding a credible partner like Mondi to collaborate with us on establishing this science-business platform was essential. Not to mention that, due to our long relationship, we have always felt that our values were aligned, so it just made sense for us to join forces.

You started this partnership two years ago. What have been the key successes so far?

Alexander: In my view, one of the core benefits of the partnership has been the opportunity to bring science and business together to have a real dialogue around the diversity of expectations and demands placed on forests. We are confronted with an increasingly complex world where climate change, policy developments and economic forces make it essential for us to combine scientific evidence with industry insights. Our work in this partnership is about finding the balance between the need for forest conservation and utilisation of renewable forest-based resources to meet society’s expectations in a circular economy.

Dirk: I agree. Within this partnership we actively discuss and work on a broad range of forest and climate change related aspects, including protecting forests, conserving biodiversity, and creating products that are sustainable by design in a circular economy. Our aim is to develop response options for these future challenges across various stakeholder groups, in both industry and science, to support a joint way forward through collaboration. Working together is essential to keep us prepared for the future.

You’ve had several Think Tank and Stakeholder Dialogue meetings with experts across the value chain. What have been your biggest learnings from this collaboration? Are there any examples of wins you might point to?

Alexander: We have learned a lot from our discussions and there are concrete examples that show just how important our collaboration is to the future of the industry. Take the spruce for example, a key source of fibre for the industry, which will face significant pressure in the next few decades in certain regions due to changing precipitation patterns and water scarcity.

Dirk: The spruce is indeed the bread-and-butter tree for the pulp and paper sector, especially in Europe, so between climate change, invasive species such as bark beetles, and water shortages, we are facing a critical question about the future availability of fibre. But by getting ahead of the issue with this partnership and finding the best, science-based alternatives for spruce in European forests, we are taking action to be prepared to navigate these challenges.

Alexander: The example of the spruce is an excellent proof point of the practical impact of our work together and how science can help bolster the industry’s preparedness. The insights gained from this partnership help the scientific community focus our work on new areas to find innovative solutions to address challenges forests and different tree species are facing due to climate change.

Dirk: And to add to this point, one of the other most significant learnings for me from working with IUFRO has been the ability to look at the complex topic of sustainable forestry management from different angles. IUFRO, through its wide scientific network, sees the problems forests face from multiple perspectives, due to its position as an umbrella organisation across all relevant scientific disciplines. So, this collaboration has meant that we’ve been able to break down a very complex subject matter into manageable pieces.

Alexander: Yes, direct conversations between scientists and business representatives help us address the right questions and increase the impact of our research. Collaboration isn’t always easy, but trustful and open discussions have allowed for frank conversations that help us move forward collectively.

Collaborating along the value chain sounds positive. What does the future hold for the partnership?

Dirk: Yes, definitely. Moving forward, we aim to involve more companies along the forest value chain as formal partners to drive bigger impact. Ultimately, our aspiration is to build a strong platform that brings together key stakeholders from the forest and forest-based industry sharing the same principles, such as scientific credibility and transparency, together with research organisations. We want to make our forests more resilient to climate change by developing and sharing insights and learnings on key mitigation and adaption measures that can be implemented to support the health and resilience of forests. This work will support a consistent fibre supply long into the future.

Alexander: To Dirk’s point, I think an important goal to develop a common understanding between business and science, addressing not only the challenges faced by the industry but also how to effectively tackle them in the long term and at scale. The combination of a science-based approach with the practical insights of implementation on the ground and in the forest by industry partners is a powerful motor for change. For the same reason, we also want to scale up our outreach and further increase the visibility of the Teaming Up 4 Forests platform among policymakers and stakeholders in relevant fora.

Dirk, if you’d like the forest-based industry to understand just one thing about the global challenges forests are facing, what would it be?

Dirk: One message I would give to the industry is the continuous need for innovation, exchange and learning to ensure we know how to adapt our forests, plants, mills, and products in future to effectively address the impacts of the climate crisis on wood supply and operations. Our collaboration now will help mitigate these risks in years to come and enable us to work together with each other, forest owners, and policy makers to secure future wood supply.

And now back to Alexander, what would your message to scientists be to help drive development?

Alexander: I believe that science should support and inform the decision-making process in industry. This requires open dialogue to understand where additional research is needed and a willingness to change and adapt from all stakeholders, including forest owners and companies like Mondi. There may not be simple answers, but through collaboration and partnerships like ours, we can work towards maximising the benefits for both the industry and the environment.

Any final words from either of you on the next steps in your collaboration and the future of the industry?

Alexander: As Dirk already mentioned, we want to open our partnership and invite others in the industry to join us. Reflecting on our most recent Think Tank meeting, we have effectively underlined the need for collaboration between science and industry. This partnership is all about ensuring we are ready for the future and that we make the most of our collective resources.

Dirk: In my view, what’s most critical for the future is finding the right balance between forest protection and utilisation – if we want to meet the future demand, we need to find this balance. Forest management is not just about harvesting, it’s about managing, conserving, and protecting forests. A lot of research has been publicised on the future forest utilisation, but further work is required to find the best way forward. Effective communication has a key role here. It’s up to us to work together to make this happen.

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