Mitigating climate change

Accountability for climate change

The Group Head Technology reports directly to the CEO. This individual is responsible for overseeing:

  • Climate-change related research, such as the group’s tree improvement research which focus on improving the sustainable supply of woodfibre
  • Research related to the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as more efficient water usage―particularly important in South Africa, where climate change is putting pressure on freshwater resources, and
  • Expansion projects where climate-related issues such as energy efficiency, decreased energy usage and a reduction in GHGs are always a consideration.


In all three regions where Sappi operates, climate change could alter the frequency and intensity of forest disturbances such as insect outbreaks, invasive species, wildfires and storms. These disturbances could reduce forest productivity and change the distribution of tree species. However, given SEU’s general risk mitigation strategy of sourcing pulp and woodfibre from a variety of sources and regions, we do not anticipate any material impact to raw material supply from climate change in the short- to medium term (five to 10 years). In SNA, our operations do not currently face material risks associated with climate change. With the exception of fibre from Brazil for Westbrook Mill, we source from northern hardwood and softwood baskets that have not suffered under any drought conditions or from fire.

In SSA, where our operations are being impacted by climate change and we make significant investment in the prevention of fire, pests and diseases, as well as site species matching to tolerate drought, frost and other weather events. We have seen a large steady decline in rainfall in our best growing areas in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) with a significant decline in mean annual increment and production from these areas.

Sappi Forests’ response

The plantation industry in South Africa faces an increasing threat from pests and diseases, as well as climate change.

As a leader in R&D, Sappi Forests mitigates these risks by:

  • A diversity of commercial species and hybrids deployed across a wide range of climatic conditions and site species matching
  • Maintaining wide genetic variability in planting material. This enables Sappi to breed trees for a wide range of conditions and the rate of change in conditions is considered slow enough for the company to respond in the breeding programme. In other words, we will produce better trees as conditions change
  • Measuring permanent sample plots annually (eucalypts) or bi-annually (pines) to determine the effect of drought on current annual increment as an input to long-term planning
  • Implementing extensive planting of more drought-tolerant eucalypt hybrids, and
  • Engaging in research and collaboration with industry and tertiary institutions to develop bio control measures and breed genetically more resistant planting stock.

In addition, we have undertaken the following:

  • We recently conducted an assessment to investigate possible climate change effects on our land holdings. The most important finding from the preliminary work is that it provides a ranking of areas where the most severed climate changes can be expected. These results indicate that monthly changes and trends are as important as mean annual changes between periods.

    There is in general an increase in mean maximum temperatures over the late-winter (July to October) period. Winter minimum temperatures will not increase significantly on higher elevations, whilst winter minimum temperatures will increase on lower elevation areas. Thus, there might be only a small frost risk reduction on certain plantations. There is a high likelihood of an increased fire season and decreased growing period.

    The reduced rainfall and increased temperature range over the late winter to early spring period on the Highveld plantations will likely increase tree stress. For the first three districts in Mpumalanga with the highest climate change risk planting of Eucalyptus (E.) nitens had to be stopped due to pest and disease issues, possibly already related to climate change.
  • Shifting our tree breeding strategy: Sappi’s breeding programme has seen an important shift from planting pure species to more productive, better adapted, and more pest and disease resistant hybrids of both hardwood and trees grown in SSA plantations. This change in strategy is being driven by the need to respond more rapidly to the challenge of changing weather patterns (driven by climate change) that are resulting in significant increases in pest and diseases in the tree crop. The benefit of developing new hybrids is that breeders can additively combine the benefits from two or more species and develop varieties that have improved fibre yield and quality as well as better disease/pest tolerance. The vision is that by 2025 all of the Sappi’s tree planting efforts will be improved hybrid varieties or families. A good current example of this shift is provided by our strategy in terms of E. nitens (see case study alongside).

    Sappi’s forest land encompasses a huge diversity of environments, ranging from warm, year-round growing conditions in sub-tropical Zululand to cold temperate areas with winters exposed to both frost and snow during the winter season. Accordingly, breeders have focused on developing and testing a large range of new hybrids with species sourced from Australia/Indonesia for eucalypts to Central America, Mexico and the United States of America for pines. In addition, new technologies, such as the use of molecular marker technologies, are helping breeders improve both the quality and throughput of the varieties than can be tested and developed.

    One important driver for this change in strategy is the ability to respond rapidly to changes or new threats. The move to developing and testing hybrid varieties and families will greatly increase Sappi’s response time. In conjunction with a change in breeding strategy, Sappi has invested in state-of-the-art nurseries at Clan, in the KZN midlands and at Ngodwana, Mpumalanga. These cuttings nurseries are now capable of replacing a large proportion of the previous seedling crop that has been planted in the past.

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Eucalyptus nitens in KwaZulu-Natal
Site genotype matching aims to find the optimal solution between producing as much timber as possible, at the lowest risk, which is suitable for the market. Over a large portion of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) at altitudes greater than 1,150 metres, snowfalls with an average interval of 10 years between major snowfall events can occur. In the past, Eucalyptus nitens has been deployed in areas in KZN where snow and frost risk are high. However, increased occurrences of pest and disease issues associated with E. nitens (such as Mycosphaerella leaf disease, Phytophtora root rot and Cossid Moth) are putting this species at risk.

Accordingly, Sappi had to consider deploying alternative genotypes, despite the potential higher risk of snow and frost damage. A study was conducted to identify the areas in KZN subjected to different levels of frost and snow in order to quantify the risk exposure. The financial implications of planting alternative genotypes were also evaluated for a number of scenarios. The results from a snow damage study at Bulwer provided both a measure of the percentage of E. nitens trees per snow damage class, as well as the impact of snow damage on harvesting productivity. This information was used in the calculation of utilisable timber and harvesting costs of each scenario. This, together with a financial evaluation was used to determine the sensitivity of various parameters and assumptions.

This in turn provided a probability of making a loss with each scenario, based on the variation defined for each assumption in the model. The results indicated that on sites where both severe snow risk and frost risk occurs, it will be challenging to find an alternative to E. nitens, without increasing the risk of crop loss (past conditions). However, compared to scenarios where E. nitens survival declined and were subjected to pests and diseases (future conditions), even the worst-case scenario with a snow and frost tolerant hybrid outperformed the E. nitens. This work highlighted the importance of evaluating management options and associated risks across the entire value chain.